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THE VALUE OF DISTANCE

Non-verbal communication offers many resources for caregivers to connect with people. In this article, Frederic Charrier, speaker at a Masterclass of the UNIR Supercaregivers programme dedicated to this topic, offers us some ideas about one of the lesser-known aspects of this communication modality.

For many people, non-verbal communication usually evokes a series of gestures and body expressions that allow us to exchange messages with others. The truth is that this type of language goes beyond our body movements: a look, a smile, the tone, or volume of our voice are other aspects that we can modulate and that are part of our ability to express ourselves non-verbally.

Within this set of resources at our disposal, there is one aspect that is not so well known but nevertheless particularly important in terms of communication: proxemics. This word refers to the use we make of the space surrounding our body in our communication processes, i.e., the distance we maintain with our interlocutor, and the presence or absence of physical contact between the two of us.

Proxemics considers different degrees of distance in an interaction between two people, the closest being intimate distance (within 45 cm) and personal distance (between 45 and 120 cm).

Let’s look at an example of a very frequent situation involving this concept: we are sitting in a metro carriage, at one end of a row of three seats, and the other two are also occupied. Suddenly, the passenger at the other end stands up, and then the person sitting next to us moves to the seat that has just been freed.

What is the first thought that comes to mind? Some of us will feel more comfortable not having someone so close to us, as the distance has changed from intimate to personal. Others will not understand the other person’s need to move. Still others may even wonder if there is something about us that is making this person uncomfortable.

In the same way, we will find different reasons that may explain why the other person has changed seats, such as a desire to be calmer or to respect a greater safety distance in times of Covid.

If proxemics influences the messages, conscious or unconscious, given and received by two people who do not know each other, we can imagine its impact when we communicate with someone voluntarily.

One characteristic of the work of caregivers is that it involves being physically very close to the people they are caring for, within their personal and even intimate space. If we are in this profession, we are surely used to this reality and have incorporated it as part of our daily lives. However, have we ever wondered what the other person’s perception might be?

The answer to this question depends on many factors, not only personal, but also cultural, educational, age or gender. The question becomes even more sensitive if we place ourselves in the first day, in the first interactions we will have with a person we are going to care for. Imagine, for example, what our reaction would be if someone who is not a relative or friend were to burst into our living space and remain at a short distance from us throughout the day.

Of course, our aim is to care, to accompany, to offer presence, closeness, and human warmth, but as in any communication process, what matters, beyond the intention, is what our interlocutor perceives. For this reason, and in order to empathise with the people we care for, we can apply some simple guidelines for action:

  • Be aware of the importance of distance, especially when establishing a first contact, avoiding for example abrupt gestures or an invasive personal attitude.
  • Verbalise what we are about to do whenever we get too close and enter their intimate space.
  • Know how to modulate the distance in our interactions, depending on the moment or the intention we want to convey to the person we care for.
  • Use a sense of humour at times when an intimate distance is obligatory, such as during grooming or certain types of care.
  • Check from time to time that the person is comfortable, by asking questions or paying attention to their non-verbal language if they find it difficult to express themselves.

In short, whenever we are at a personal or intimate distance from the people we care for, we want them to perceive what we are saying to them without words: I care about you, you can count on me, I am here to help you.

It is a fundamental step in building a relationship of mutual trust, especially in situations where people may feel more vulnerable.

At a time when we are asked to maintain a certain distance in our social interactions, the work of caregivers becomes more complicated but also more necessary than ever to remind us of the importance of closeness and human contact.

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