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The Hidden Impact of Non-Verbal Facial Expressions on Communication

Have you ever found yourself in a conversation where, despite the words being said, you feel a wave of negativity? It might be because of non-verbal cues, especially facial expressions and tone of voice. According to renowned relationship expert Dr John Gottman, non-verbal expressions, particularly those that convey contempt, can significantly impact how partners communicate and connect.





The Subtle Sabotage of Contempt


Contempt is one of the most damaging emotions in any relationship. It's not just the words that hurt but the sneer, the eye-roll, or the sarcastic tone that can make your partner feel belittled and disrespected. Dr Gottman’s research highlights that contemptuous expressions are strong predictors of relationship dissatisfaction and divorce. These expressions convey superiority and disdain, eroding the foundation of mutual respect and affection.


What Do Contemptuous Expressions Look Like?


Recognizing these harmful cues is the first step towards change. Here are some examples:


  • Sneering or smirking: These expressions suggest mockery and disdain.

  • Eye-rolling: This non-verbal cue screams, "I don't respect you," and can shut down any productive conversation.

  • Sarcastic tone: While words may seem innocuous, the tone can reveal underlying contempt.

  • Lip curling or sneering: These subtle facial movements can make your partner feel insignificant and unloved.


The Role of Tone


Just as crucial as facial expressions, the tone of your voice can either bridge or widen the gap between you and your partner. A harsh, condescending, or dismissive tone can make even a simple request feel like a command or criticism. On the other hand, a warm, inviting, and respectful tone can foster openness and trust.


How to Change Harmful Non-Verbal Cues


Changing these damaging habits requires awareness and practice. Here are some tips to get started:


  1. Self-awareness: Start by becoming more aware of your non-verbal expressions. Pay attention to your facial movements and tone during conversations.

  2. Empathy: Try to put yourself in your partner’s shoes. How would you feel if you were on the receiving end of contemptuous expressions?

  3. Mindfulness: Practice mindfulness techniques to manage your emotions better. When you feel contempt rising, take a deep breath and refocus on communicating respectfully.

  4. Positive Reinforcement: Reinforce positive interactions by consciously using more affirming and appreciative expressions and tones.

  5. Seek Feedback: Encourage your partner to gently point out when you exhibit negative non-verbal cues. This can help you become more attuned to your behaviour and make necessary adjustments.  Marriage counselling Redlands can support you as an individual or as a couple if you require professional intervention.


Effective communication is the cornerstone of a healthy relationship. By being mindful of non-verbal cues like facial expressions and tone, you can transform your interactions from contentious to constructive. Dr Gottman’s insights remind us that respect and empathy should always be at the forefront of our interactions. So next time you find yourself in a heated conversation, remember: it’s not just what you say, but how you say it that truly matters.  Life counselling Redlands supports the local community in person as well as the surrounding suburbs and states through online relationship counselling Australia wide.





Debra Bragança is a registered Counsellor with The Australian Counselling Association and works with both adults and couples impacted from trauma, anxiety, chronic illness, depression and relationship issues, including affairs and betrayals.



She is trained in a number of evidence-based therapies including CBT (Cognitive Behaviour Therapy), CPT (Cognitive Processing Therapy), ACT (Acceptance & Commitment Therapy) and Gottman Couples Therapy, including Affair & Betrayal Recovery.

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