How to Hear Beyond Words

Learning Objectives
Upon completion of this module, facilitators will be able to:

  • Verbalize the importance of nonverbal communication in their interactions.
  • Demonstrate that nonverbal communication actually enhances verbal communication.
  • Implement in the Sabbath School classroom techniques of nonverbal communication.

When it comes to communication, the old adage “Action speaks louder than words” shouts. Human beings say much more nonverbally than they actually utter from their mouths. In fact, it is common knowledge that approximately 93 percent of all communication is nonverbal.

Nonverbal communication and body language are “all forms of human communication that are not language” ( This includes paralanguage, “which is the vocal (but nonverbal) dimension of speech. It refers to the manner in which you say something rather than to what you say” (Joseph A. DeVito, The Interpersonal Communication Book, Tenth Edition, Boston: Pearson Education, Inc., 2004).

The nonverbal element, researchers contend, works together with the verbal by:

  • Clarifying verbal message meaning.
  • Facilitating feedback.
  • Creating a rapport between the speaker and the audience.
  • Helping to establish the credibility of the speaker.

According to SMARTraining, body language occurs in all face-to-face encounters. It reveals true feelings toward the speaker, as well as indicates how well the speaker is getting his other message across (see Body language can help facilitators determine whether or not members are understanding what is going on in class, or, for that matter, whether they are listening at all!

There are seven areas of nonverbal communication that merit exploration:

  • Eye contact regulates the flow of communication and increases the speaker’s credibility. The eyes are the most expressive part of the human body. When a speaker looks away, it signals disinterest, short attention span, and lack of confidence. It can also send the message to the listener(s) that the speaker may not be altogether trustworthy. Blinking and constantly shifting the view can also indicate dishonesty.
  • Facial expressions convey many feelings, e.g., happiness, warmth, liking, friendliness. Often people are not aware of the expressions that they wear on their faces.
  • Gestures, nodding the head and hand movements, for example, can reinforce positive communication.
  • Posture and body orientation convey many types of messages. This category includes the way a person walks, stands, and sits.
  • Personal space is defined in North America as a boundary of 30 to 36 inches. Honoring this personal space is very important.
  • Paralinguistics include the vocal tone, pitch, rhythm, volume, and inflection.
  • Humor, particularly laughter, is a well-used mode of nonverbal communication.

The Special Importance of Sabbath School Leaders
Sabbath School facilitators are “messengers” of God:

“If [he or she] is the representative of Christ, [his or her] deportment, . . . gestures, should be of such a character as will not strike the beholder with disgust” (Ellen G. White, Evangelism, p. 145).

Ellen White speaks also about how Christ spoke “the words of life” so plainly “that a child could understand them [. . .] . [T]hey would catch the very intonation of His voice, [. . .] and imitate His gestures” (The Voice in Speech and Song, p. 86).

The following suggestions can help Sabbath School facilitators maximize use of nonverbal communication to draw members into a closer walk with Christ:

  • Make eye contact with members. The channel of communication will be opened and you will show that you are interested. Maintaining good eye contact also shows credibility and warmth. Just be careful not to be too intense—to stare—and, as a result, make the other person uncomfortable.
  • Maintain good posture. This signals to your members that you are confident and comfortable. Good posture makes you feel good as well.
  • Keep a level head! Hold your head straight. Self-assurance and, again, confidence, make you seem authoritative. People take seriously what you are saying. When you are discussing the Word, you want to be taken seriously. At times, of course, you may tilt your head to one side to show yourself friendly and receptive.
  • Strike a balance. More outgoing people tend to use their arms more; whereas less outgoing people hold their arms closer to their bodies. It’s best to be balanced; that is, don’t go overboard either way. Whatever you do, don’t cross your arms in front of you. This can send the message that you think you know everything, making you seem unapproachable.
  • Hands up! Gesture to augment what you are saying. Just be careful not to overuse hand gestures to the point that they seem preprogrammed, mechanical, or rehearsed.
  • Sssh! Keep silent, occasionally. Silence is potentially a very effective nonverbal technique. Silence enables reflective thinkers to assess and assimilate new information. The hesitant and unsure participants need a bit more time to respond to questions or to make meaningful comments. When someone makes a particularly insightful comment, it can be a blessing to the entire class to have silence in which to revel in the thought.
  • On time is too late for leaders.Your punctuality shows the members that the class is important to you. “If the [Sabbath School facilitator] comes rushing in breathless, behind time, the influence is leading to nonpunctuality and disorder” (Counsels on Sabbath School Work, p. 92).
  • Dress to minister. “They should be attired in plain, simple garments” (Counsels on Sabbath School Work, p. 105). Now, that doesn’t mean that your dress need be drab and unappealing.

The ultimate importance of nonverbal communication lies in the fact that Jesus used it so perfectly. In Matthew 8:3 we read how Jesus healed the leper by touching him, breaking the conventions of His day.

“We, too, must not underestimate the healing power of touch. Employed with appropriate discretion, the touch of love—whether the outstretched hand or an embrace—for many wounded people goes far beyond what words may accomplish” (Adult Sabbath School Bible Study Guide, April-June 2005, Lesson 2, “Jesus Through the Eyes of Mary,” p. 17).

Jesus didn’t have to touch the man to heal him. The man was a leper, and no one else would touch him. In effect, Jesus’ nonverbal gesture, His touch, gave the man the love for which he had long been deprived. Touch can do just that, even today. How many of your class members need a caring touch?

Nonverbal communication techniques enable Sabbath School facilitators to better serve their members:

  • First, the techniques themselves help class facilitators become more assured that they are portraying Christ as best they can.
  • They gain a better understanding of their class members as they accommodate them, using the Savior’s example of hearing beyond words.

Dorothy J. Patterson
© 2014 General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists

Self-Assessment No. 9
Write detailed answers to the following four questions:

1. What image of you does your personal body language project to other people?
2. How do your words and gestures combine to help in your facilitation of the Sabbath School lesson?
3. How will knowledge of nonverbal techniques help you to better understand your class members?
4. How can you silently convey to all your members your feelings of love and acceptance for them?