Written by Dr Kate Beaven-Marks
This time last year, unless working in a medical setting, it is unlikely you would have been sitting in your therapy room conducting hypnotherapy, whilst wearing a mask. Yet today, it is likely that if you are doing hypnotherapy in person, you will be wearing a mask. This blog explores some of the impact that wearing a mask can have on your communication, how you are understood, and offers some tips for how you can adapt your approach to mitigate possible communication difficulties.
So, what are some of the potential difficulties a hypnotherapist might experience whilst wearing a mask? Is it just that the mask forms a physical barrier to the sound of your voice, particularly the consonants? If you are a natural ‘mumbler’ this can be accentuated. Or it is that there are other factors?
Depending on the style of mask that you choose, it may muffle the clarity of your speech, reduce some of the volume, or limit the projection of your voice. For any hypnotherapists with aphasia (difficulty with speech e.g. after a stroke), this can be an additional challenge to their natural difficulties with producing clear speech.
As well as the direct impact on the quality of your voice, by covering much of your face, individuals who need visual clues to aid the comprehension of spoken words can struggle. For example, this may be because they have poor hearing and rely, to some extent, on lip-reading, or it could be that they are weak at understanding the emotional content of speech and so rely on facial expressions to give them supplementary information. In addition, where someone who is hard of hearing might naturally lean in a little closer to gain greater volume, there is now a reluctance of many to breach social distancing. Indeed, in some cases, it is possible to observe that where one person deliberately or subconsciously leans in to hear better, the speaker leans away, either intentionally or without conscious thought.
As humans, we use non-verbal cues and particularly facial expressions naturally to give us additional information. For a hypnotherapist, it helps us build rapport and gauge a client or subject’s level of engagement. For example, a smile, a downturned mouth, a chewed lip all tell us something different. The effective reading of expressions forms part of our emotional intelligence. Where clients have low emotional intelligence and poor expression reading skills, they may struggle reading the expressions of a masked hypnotherapist.
Not all expressions a client may see are as clear to read as those that Charles Darwin wrote about all the way back in 1872, with ‘The expression of the emotions in man and animals’, which has some very explicit photographs (from plates) of some rather extreme emotions. This reading can be even more challenging when clients are attempting to gain information from micro-expressions, which an expert on micro-expression, Paul Ekman suggests they are only visible for a fraction of a second. Here, the many variations within an expression can be more complex to decode in the absence of the entire face to give more information. For example, different types of smiles can arise from specific emotions, such as a ‘feeling attracted to you’ smile being different to a ‘seeing a cute dress in a shop window’ smile. Indeed, it is suggested that there are 19 different types of smiles, with only 6 being positive (e.g. happiness) and others relating to pain, embarrassment and fear.
Although it is possible to read a multitude of micro-expressions from people’s eyes, we are not all skilled at doing so. Only if we have ever had a need to develop this ability, does it tend to become a strong skill. Although, we are often more able to read the key emotions such as anger, job and sadness.
The ability to read non-verbal communication is with us from birth. Far before the ability to understand words. Yet for many people, as they learn verbal language, they can start to pay less attention to expressions and give more attention to the spoken word. This can be influenced by environment though. Long before the present wearing of masks in the UK, researchers have explored the impact of face coverings on comprehension in countries where wearing masks has been more common. Interestingly, finding that despite mask wearing being in the popular culture, there are still communication issues, such as the potential for a negative impact on patient’s perceptions of empathy from the physician.
Prior to the prevalence of mask wearing, some people you’ve hypnotised might not have even realised that they’d resorted to supplementing their poor hearing with some degree of lip and facial expression reading. It may have come as a complete surprise or shock quite how much they relied on seeing the speaker’s mouth to understand what was being said. Furthermore, this could cause anxiety amongst those who are reluctant to divulge such personal information and the stress of this could impair their ability to comprehend even further, or simply make it feel more challenging than it is. However, for lip-readers, not all lip-reading is accurate, and the McGurk effect may offer us some insight. McGurk and MacDonald conducted a study which demonstrated the influence of vision on the perception of speech. They conducted some interesting studies showing lip movements can easily be misread (e.g. mixing up ‘ga’ and ‘da’) and the resultant perception of what is said can be affected by the weighting towards visual or auditory. If someone is very much reliant on lip-reading, you may find using a visor/face shield/clear mask more helpful, where appropriate to use one.
Tips to aid comprehension
So, what can you do to combat the communication issues that wearing a face covering can present? Here are 10 tips that’ll help you move forward effectively:
1 – Reduce noise distractions
Avoid competing with other sounds wherever possible. For example, if you usually play music, consider reducing the volume or turning it off. If you are in a social or sporting setting, perhaps aim to move somewhere a little quieter.
2 – Optimise your position
If you are sitting side by side then you may be able to sit closer to the person you are hypnotising, in order to be better heard. Yet, you both will miss out on a lot of non-verbal cues. As a result, remaining a little more distanced in the ’10 to 2 position’ can be more helpful when the client has their eyes open. However, you may find that sitting a little closer with side by side positioning during hypnotherapy can helpful.
3 – Get their attention
Clearly signal when you are going to start talking, such as gaining good eye contact and maintain that contact whilst talking.
4 – Speak clearly, yet normally
Although it might be tempting to compensate for your mask, there is no need to shout or over-project your voice. This can distort the sound of your speech and actually make it more difficult for someone to understand you. As well as articulating normally, you might wish to cut the waffle! If you are more succinct in what you are saying, it gives people less work when listening to you. Also, if you are naturally a fast speaker, particularly if you are also high energy, then speaking even just a little slower can help someone understand you more easily.
5 – Consider audibility
If you are speaking with someone new, check early on whether they can hear you OK and, if not, if there is anything you can do to make your communication easier for them.
6 – Assess understanding
Check for understanding, whether explicitly (asking), or looking for non-verbal cues e.g. nodding, engagement, facial expressions. If the person you are hypnotising is also wearing a mask that can make it more difficult too. If you are not sure, then simply asking can avoid having to retrace your path if your client or subject has misunderstood you.
7 – Use your body language
Keep in mind that the people you hypnotise will be reading your body language to give them additional information. Also, that they may be using this skill at a level beyond their normal level, so it may be harder or taking more conscious effort. Making your emotions and expressions clear and understandable can be a great help. You may also find that using hand signals to give visual clues as to what you are talking about can really help people understand what you are saying. For example, if you are talking about sending them an email, you might mimic typing and then gesture towards them, whilst verbally saying the same.
8 – Read their body language
Be observant of their entire body, from their extremities (feet, hands, head) all the way in. People tend to forget about the messages that their hands, feet and even their eyes are conveying, yet those messages tend to be more accurate than the words someone is saying. Whilst the person you are talking to may say that they are happy to go into hypnosis, the body angled away, the slight shake of the head or the twisting hands might give you a different message.
9 – Explore adaptations
If someone you are working with who supports their poor hearing with lip-reading is struggling, consider using drawings or writing to enhance the clarity of what you are saying, or ask whether they have a text to speech app they can use on their phone. You could even invest in a cheap microphone/headphones setup, as an adaptation.
10 – Enhance subtle influences
Having a photo of yourself in your therapy room, allows people to see what you look like normally (unmasked). So, even though they may not be able to see your face in person, it reminds them what you look like, and can build rapport and familiarity.
Ultimately, if you, the therapist consider that wearing a mask is an issue, that is the message you will convey (whether consciously or subconsciously) and you are less likely to take a solution-focused approach. However, although perhaps not desirable, wearing a mask gives you an opportunity to re-evaluate your communication processes, in order to more effectively communicate your message in the face of challenges. If you would like to develop your communication skills further, check out our short online course ‘Improve your Communication’ or my book on the topic, ‘How to Communicate More Effectively’.
We hope that this blog about hypnotherapy whilst wearing masks has been helpful. If you have any questions about this topic or anything else for that matter, do please get in touch, because we’re always happy to help!
– written by Dr Kate Beaven-Marks