Body language: down and dirty

Body language is a part of communication I never paid much attention to before I became a nurse---specifically, before I ended up in highly emotionally charged situations in ERs, jails, prisons, and, currently, hospice. I've learned a few tricks and tips.

  • Make a basket. Meaning, don't fold your arms or shove them in your pockets; instead, fold your fingers or hold your wrists and let them fall down in a big loop. This is, for some reason known only to shrinks, a nonthreatening position.
  • Do a body scan. Of yourself. Force your muscles to relax. Force your voice to stop squeaking.
  • Do a situation scan. Is someone towering over you and shouting? Stand up. Are you trapped between the shouting person and an escape route? Move. Are you infringing on someone's space? Move back. Have you legitimately done something wrong? Apologize. Addendum: frequently it is not possible to tell what is causing an outburst. In that case, assume it is not about you. That makes it easier to deal with and is also true 99.9% of the time (I totally made that up).
  • Do a body scan again. It's amazing what making all your muscles relax will do to help many situations.
  • Avoid the following:
    • "I understand how you feel." Or variants, such as "I understand that this is frustrating." Do you? The angry person has no way to know. Better to say something less obvious, such as, "this must be very frustrating" or "I feel like you are really frustrated, but I may be able to do something to fix it." Much better than "I know how you feel." Clearly occasionally you may in fact have a good idea how someone is feeling, but I find that if you choose to share this, it's best not to start with "I know how you feel." It's like "calm down." Just don't say it. Instead say something like "when this similar situation happened to me, I felt this way...."
    • "Calm down." This has never made anyone calm down, ever, in the history of the world.
    • Talking to fill space. That's a thing people do when they're nervous. You don't want to appear nervous, so clam up. If you've asked a question, allow that horrible silence to drag on. And on. And on.
  • Move in to the discomfort. When people start getting mad, distraught, or upset in any way, our human instinct is to pull back. It can be as simple as leaning back in your chair or as dramatic as finding an excuse to leave the room. Go toward it. (Safety permitting.) If someone has a screaming fit, stay exactly where you are, relax your muscles, make a basket, and be silent for a while. Fits come to an end. Moving away from the fit will prolong it and give the fit-thrower an advantage. (Again, if objects are about to get thrown, all bets are off. Move.)
  • Do a body scan. This is the equivalent of, in nursing school, "wash your hands." Do it all the time. Are you shoulders up? Forward? Are you hunched over? Are you rattling your feet? Biting your nails? Twirling your hair? Stop it. Fold your arms in your lap, breathe, and LOOK RELAXED.
  • Pause. Just pause, before you respond. Allow yourself to say things like "I think we should have this conversation at another time," if possible. Often, you do get a say in when a conflict takes place. You don't have to accept every invitation.

I'll say that again because it was a miracle to me when I heard it. "Who offered you this ass-chewing?" said a supervisor once. I named the person. "Did you accept it?" he asked. I was dumbfounded.

You do have the ability to reject an ass-chewing or decline to meet an unmeetable need. There are often consequences, but you don't have to accept every invitation to an argument, ass-chewing, or guilt trip.

The idea here is to recognize and acknowledge power plays and how they are affecting you, or, occasionally, how your power plays may be making something worse. Are you antagonizing someone? It could be unintentional. But are you? Stop!

Is your energy feeding in to a bad situation? If you're clenched up tight, your voice is high, and your arms are folded, the answer is yes. If you are the nurse, the charge nurse, the manager, or just about anyone who's ever been in a conflict, fix that stuff and things will go better for you.

What if someone actually threatens you? This happened to me in the ER and corrections on a pretty regular basis.

Guess what? The same principles apply, whether a convicted murderer is treatening to kill you if she doesn't get her Tylenol RIGHT NOW or whether the checker at Wal-Mart is being snippy. The SAME.

Oh. And breathe. Especially if you're maintaining a silence, this can be super helpful.

Hope this helps!