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Talking body to body

Talking Body to Body

Nonverbal skills for supporting refugees arriving in Europe

By Jonathan Nattel

It is a sunny morning in late October, and Fatima, a refugee from Syria, is sitting on a bed in an Austrian transit centre. Fatima’s three-year old daughter is standing next to her, and is refusing to let Fatima change her diaper.

Both Fatima and her daughter are tired and stressed after many weeks of difficult travel. Fatima finally loses her patience with her daughter, and gives her a slap across the cheek.

Fortunately a volunteer from Austrian Red Cross is nearby, and comes over to the family to offer support. Even though the volunteer speaks a language that they don’t understand, they can tell from the warmth in her voice and the expression on her face that the volunteer is friendly and is there to help.

The little girl takes the volunteer by the hand. When Fatima begins responding to the volunteer in Arabic, she has the sense that the volunteer understands her feelings, if not her words. Something about the way the volunteer is listening gives Fatima the sense of being cared for and safe.

The warm and supportive presence of the volunteer has a fast-acting effect on the mother and the daughter. Both of them soon begin to calm down, and when the volunteer says goodbye a few minutes later, Fatima’s daughter calmly lets her mother change her diaper. The daughter then runs off to play with the other children, and Fatima is able to get some much needed rest.

Subtle interventions, powerful effects

Although interventions such as this may appear to be small, they can often have a powerful and long-lasting effect. For Fatima and her daughter, this may well be the first time since their arrival in Europe that they have felt cared for, welcome and safe. Even though they may not get to meet this volunteer again, the memory of moments such as these will be important resources as they continue along their journey.

Like many other national societies, the Austrian Red Cross is playing a critical role in the reception and care of refugees and asylum seekers in Europe. One of the greatest challenges in this context is the issues of cultural and linguistic barriers: refugees come from many different countries speaking many different languages.

In response to the need for cross-culturally effective psychosocial support, the Austrian Red Cross has been involved in developing a training program designed to help PSS providers work skillfully and effectively with refugees and asylum seekers. Collaborative Resiliency Training for Refugee Support is designed to help PSS providers use body-based skills and communication in order to offer effective support refugees arriving in Europe.


Culturally adapted psychosocial support


Collaborative Resiliency Training (CRT) is an approach to psychosocial support that was originally developed in Africa, through a process of collaborative dialogue with local communities and associations. CRT is designed to empower people with culturally adapted skills for both self-care and mutual support.

In recent years, neuroscience has made important discoveries about just how deeply the mind, the body and human communication are interconnected. The way we use nonverbal communication to create a feeling of emotional connection can have an extremely powerful and supportive effect – not just at the level of the mind, but also at the level of the human nervous system. CRT is designed to help people develop their own, culturally relevant way of working with this relationship, and to offer psychosocial support in ways that make sense within their own cultural context.

In response to the current refugee situation in Europe, a specialized version of this approach has been developed for European PSS providers who are working with refugees. The training is designed to help PSS providers develop practical skills for offering psychosocial support that draw on the ways that the mind, the body and social connection all work together to bring about resilience. The training has been offered in Austria since autumn 2015, and is currently being adapted for use throughout Europe.

Skills-based training for PSS providers

Collaborative Resiliency Training for Refugee Support was developed through a process of dialogue between Red Cross personnel, psychosocial volunteers, and – most importantly – refugees themselves.
The training is generally offered in the form of a two-day workshop. Participants in the workshop are introduced to key principles for using body language and nonverbal skills in psychosocial support, and are given plenty of time to practice techniques for overcoming communication challenges. PSS providers learn to use this approach directly with refugees, as well as to strengthen their own capacity for self-care and mutual support.

“Since participating in this training,” said one participant, “I have seen that human contact can take place even without a common language. I have also understood that different cultures can show their feelings in different ways, and that there are different cultural rules for showing emotions.”

Participants in the training have included individuals who are working with refugees for the first time, as well as others who have already gotten considerable experience. Both types of participants have reported that they found the training to be helpful, and that they learned skills and techniques that would serve them well in their work with refugees.
For more information about the training, please contact the author: jon.nattel@gmail.comref support graphics1

Tips for Using Nonverbal Communication

  • Find your own comfort zone. When you offer support, what message do you want your body language to convey? Take a few minutes to think about how to highlight that message in a way that feels natural and comfortable for you.
  • Pay attention to people’s movements and gestures. People often tell each other a lot through the way they use their hands, their facial expressions and the way they move their bodies.
  • Tune in to the feelings of the person you are supporting by matching the rhythm and the tone of their voice when you speak. This is something that most people do naturally, and that helps us create a feeling of connection.
  • Be patient with yourself, and let yourself make mistakes. Nonverbal communication is something we get better at with time, and the more patient we can be with ourselves, the faster we will learn!


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