Talks and touches for the soul

Non-verbal communication is a crucial factor for a successful conversation. Although language is the main tool, non-verbal signals such as body language and touch can play an important role.

But when is it appropriate to use touch in conversation to build a deeper connection with the interlocutor, and what is the best way to perceive non-verbal communication?

Prof. Dr. Sebastian Ocklenburg, Professor of Research Methods in Psychology at the MSH Medical School Hamburg, has taken on these questions and talked to LESEZEIT about the importance of touch for mental health.

Mr Ocklenburg, is listening important to you compared to speaking in a conversation?

As a psychologist, listening is particularly important to me - good listening in many cases makes up one of the most important aspects of our work.

To what extent do you think body language and non-verbal signals play an important role in communication?

In general, it is of course very important to pay attention to the body language and non-verbal signals of the person you are listening to. Facial expressions in particular can provide a lot of important contextual information about how someone actually means a spoken statement, such as whether it is meant seriously or ironically.

How does non-verbal communication, such as touch, influence the conversation and its course?

Of course, this varies greatly from person to person. If both people agree to touch each other and see the touch positively, it can lead to a closer bond between the two people. However, unwanted touching can of course also lead to negative emotions.

Wann ist es angemessen, in einer Konversation Berührungen zu nutzen und wann ist es tabu?

The most important thing, of course, is that the other person also wants to be touched - many people find unwanted touching extremely unpleasant. When in doubt, it is probably best to simply ask if it is OK for the other person or not. In addition, there are of course areas of life where you should generally refrain from touching other people in conversation, such as at work.

How important is it to also perceive the non-verbal communication of the interlocutor and what is the best way to go about it?

I think it's similar to listening well: You should give the other person your undivided attention and fully engage in the conversation. Of course, the importance of non-verbal communication always depends on the people involved. For example, if there is an important topic that the person does not want to address directly, non-verbal signals can play an important role. If you notice that there is an unspoken topic, you can then, for example, ask yourself if there is a need for additional conversation.

How can you use non-verbal communication through touch in a targeted way to build a deeper connection with the person you are talking to?

Yes, if the touches are wanted by both people and perceived positively, they can certainly contribute to a deeper connection. Hugs, especially longer ones, lead to a release of the bonding hormone oxytocin. This contributes to a long-term emotional bond between the people involved.

How important is touch for mental health?

There are big differences between people and you can't generalise. Some people get along quite well without hugs or other touches and don't miss them. Some even find touching negative. For others, not being held for a long time is really bad, and the absence of touch can have a negative impact on mental health. This was particularly evident during the Corona pandemic. Due to the measures taken to contain the pandemic, many people had fewer opportunities to socialise and thus hug others, and some felt very uncomfortable with this. In a scientific publication, the feeling was called "hunger for touch", which perhaps sums it up quite well for some people.

Is it possible to reduce stress and tension through targeted touch and thus strengthen mental health?

Yes, definitely, provided the touching is wanted by both people and is perceived positively! Studies have shown that hugs before stressful situations (such as job interviews) significantly reduce the release of the stress hormone cortisol in the situation. Interestingly, a study by researchers at the University of Frankfurt showed that hugging oneself can also reduce stress hormones. So if you don't have anyone to hug at the moment, simply giving yourself a hug can also reduce stress and tension.

Sebastian Ocklenburg

Prof. Dr Sebastian Ocklenburg is Professor of Research Methods in Psychology at the MSH Medical School Hamburg.

His research focuses on left-handedness, brain asymmetries and social touch. Among other things, he wrote the book " The psychology and neuroscience of hugging".