June 9-13, 2014 The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga

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Observations And Nonverbal Communication In Assessing Victim Needs

Victim service providers respond to the needs of the victim in a variety of situations including but not limited to the scene of a crime or shortly thereafter; answering the hot line at a victim assistance center; providing support in the courtroom; or providing corrections-based victim services. In all of these situations, the victim service provider must have the skills required to determine a course of action to respond to the specific needs of the victim. Assessment skills include listening, observing, and asking relevant questions.


When observing any situation involving victims of crime, a provider needs to be aware of the entire situation (e.g., is the situation safe? Is the victim coping enough to function?). Much of the information a service provider receives will be through nonverbal communication.

Exhibit V-1

Verbal and Nonverbal Communication


Nonverbal Communication

The words we use are only a small percentage of communication. As Exhibit V-1 shows, only about 7 percent of all communication is verbal; of the remaining 93 percent, 38 percent is vocal and 55 percent is facial (Mehrabian and Ferris, 1967; Ekman and Friesen, 1969).

Nonverbal behavior can communicate respect and concern and can increase both your comfort level, as well as the victim’s comfort level.

Nonverbal communication is important because:

  • It affects how we understand others and how they understand us.

  • Sometimes there are differences or inconsistencies between verbal communication and nonverbal expression. Victim service providers need to be aware of these inconsistencies in themselves as well in as others.

Some aspects of nonverbal communication include:

Physical space. This describes the specific amount of space with which an individual finds a comfort zone. A person’s culture often dictates a preference for less or more space, which can also be affected simply by the impact of victimization.

Many victims prefer a bit of physical space between themselves and the person to whom they are talking. The range of victims’ comfort zones can be easily accommodated by having a narrow desk or table that provides clear space but that can be easily be reached across should it be warranted. Many victim advocates and counselors also use chairs on rollers so they can easily move closer to the victim.

Personal touch. A general rule of victim assistance is never to touch a victim unless the victim specifically invites such a gesture, either by physically reaching out to the advocate, putting his or her hand forward, or offering some other clear physical invitation that personal touch is acceptable and even desired.

Culture weighs heavily on a person’s comfort with personal touch. For example, many Asian cultures consider personal touching to be aggressive behavior and an invasion of personal space.

Through body language, an advocate can make a victim aware that personal touch is available but only if the victim so desires. A firm and warm handshake upon greeting, physically leaning forward while speaking, and having one or both hands on the table slightly extended forward are all clear nonverbal signs that if the victim wants to initiate personal touch, it will be accepted and welcomed by the advocate.

Position of the bodies and body orientation. Proximity between a victim and advocate is critical to successful communications, both verbal and nonverbal. The most important rule is to seek mutual positions where eye contact, if warranted, can be easily achieved horizontally without either party having to look up or down. A victim should always be given the choice to sit or stand and, if he or she prefers to sit, the option of choosing the seat.

The advocate’s physical position (or posture) should promote a clear interest in and receptivity to what the victim is doing or saying. This can include sitting up straight but slightly leaning forward and having one’s hands slightly forward in a comfortable position, either on one’s lap or on a table.

If a victim is uncomfortable with his or her proximity to the advocate, the advocate can look for physical signs of discomfort or distress: movement of the legs; finger tapping; physical rocking of the body; attempts to create greater physical distance, or aversion of the gaze or direct eye contact. If distress is evident, the advocate can step back, lean back, or slightly move his or her chair back.

Eye contact. A victim’s preference or disdain for direct eye contact can be based on personal upbringing and mores, cultural nuances, or simply the emotional impact of victimization, which sometimes precludes direct eye contact in nonverbal communications. While eye contact often helps facilitate effective communications and expresses a strong interest in what the other person is saying, it can also be a strong barrier to personal communications with victims who are uncomfortable with direct eye contact.

One effective approach to determining the parameters of direct eye contact is to look in the direction of the victim’s upper body and/or head without forcing direct eye contact. This sends a nonverbal signal that it is within the victim’s control to initiate direct eye contact if desired. The choice to initiate direct eye contact then becomes the victim’s.

Facial expressions. With human beings, the face is more highly developed and capable of expression than in animals, which can be a benefit or a barrier to effective communications. Some people tend to become creatures of habit with their facial expressions, habitually developing clear, distinct looks for shock, distress, frustration, and disbelief, as well as for empathy and understanding.

Victim advocates can benefit from practicing their facial expressions in the mirror or videotaping themselves in an exercise with another advocate who plays the role of a victim. Either approach promotes self-examination and critique that can eliminate any inappropriate facial expressions and allow practice of expressions that denote respect, empathy, and attention to what is being said.

Gestures. While many hand gestures are culturally driven, some are universally accepted as signs of welcome and respect. For example, holding your hands vertically, facing slightly upwards, shows that you welcome and embrace two-way communications. Holding your hands parallel to your chest, raised upward and slightly forward, emphasizes a point from either the speaker or listener. And the simple act of leaning forward with your hands on your lap or on the table says, “I’m listening to what you’re saying.”

Appearance. Victim advocates should always strive to look professional, regardless of the work environment. Whether dressed up or completely casual, it’s always important to appear professional. This requires attention to details in clothing and basic matters of hygiene, such as clean teeth and fresh breath, manicured hands, neat hair, and clean clothes that are not wrinkled.

Below is a partial list of gestures associated with an emotion or behavior, which have been provided by James J. Messina and Constance M. Messina (2006). This list can give victim service providers some idea of what a victim may be experiencing by observing their gestures. However, it is important for victim service providers to verify their observations by asking victims what they are experiencing (for example, “Are you feeling like your life is out of control?”).

  • Openness, confidence:

  • Open hands, palms up

  • Unbuttoning or removing jacket (men)

  • Eye contact

  • Smile, leaning forward, relaxed

  • Hands away from face, possibly behind back

  • Standing straight, feet slightly apart, shoulders squared

  • Cooperation, readiness:

  • Standing with hands on hips, feet apart, head tilted

  • Uncrossed legs

  • A person moves closer to another

  • Unbuttoned coat (men)

  • Head cocked, finger to face, blinking or squinting

  • Welcoming handshake

  • Open arms or hands (palms out)

  • Smile (culturally sensitive)

  • Eye contact (culturally sensitive)

  • Doubt:

  • Pacing

  • Eyes closed

  • Brow furrowed

  • Frown

  • Rubbing eyes

  • Hand to face gestures (evaluative)

  • Pacing with head down and hands behind the back or just standing

  • Scratching head

  • Suspicion, secretiveness:

  • Folded arms, moving away from another

  • Crossed legs

  • Lack of eye contact (culturally sensitive)

  • Hand covering mouth

  • Frown

  • Scrunching in with head down

  • Stolen look, sideways glance

  • Sideways positioning

  • “Poker face''

  • Deception indicated by lack of eye contact

  • Anxiety gestures

  • Looking at floor

  • Frequent swallowing

  • Wetting lips

  • Throat clearing

  • Need for reassurance:

  • Clenched hands with thumbs rubbing

  • Stroking arms

  • Cuticle picking

  • Hand pinching

  • Sucking on pen, glasses, etc.

  • Touching chair before sitting

  • Anxiety:

  • Nail biting

  • Finger movement

  • Sighing

  • Hand wringing

  • Rapid, twitchy movements

  • Clearing throat

  • Tremors, especially knees

  • Heavy breathing

  • Voice strained

  • Lips quivering

  • Rapid eye movement

  • Rigidity

  • Frustration, anger:

  • Making fists

  • Hands on hips

  • Stomping

  • Sitting on edge of chair (ready for action)

  • Chin out

  • Kicking the ground

  • Lips pressed together, jaw muscles tight

  • Running fingers through hair

  • Rubbing back of neck

  • Hands in pocket

  • Clenched hands with white knuckles

  • Pointing or jabbing

  • Hot under collar

  • Putting out cigarette, especially if with grinding motion

  • Change in skin color

  • Hostile stare

  • Defensiveness:

  • Hands in pocket

  • Hands behind back

  • Clenched hands

  • Men with jackets button up

  • Folded arms (can be reinforced by making fists)

  • Crossed legs

  • Body twisted away, moving away, sitting back

  • Head tilted forward, possibly squinting

  • Stalling for time by cleaning glasses, rearranging, etc.

  • Hand rubbing back of neck.

  • Self–control, inner conflict:

  • Hand holding wrist or arm

  • Arm locked behind back

  • Locked ankles

  • Gripping arms of chair as in dentist's chair

  • Suppressed gestures or displacement activities such as fist clenched hidden in pocket

  • Hand to mouth in astonishment or fear (suppressed scream)

  • Hand rubbing back of neck, running fingers through hair (displaced hitting out), “stiff upper lip'' or reacting as little as possible

  • Blowing nose and coughing (disguised tears)

Asking Open-ended and Closed-ended Questions

Asking questions is often the best way to assess a victim’s needs. Questions let the victim know that you are interested in helping him or her, and they involve the victim in his or her own assessment. This tends to build the connection with the victim that is so critical to the victim service provider’s ability to do his or her job and to the healing process for the victim. Because the objective of asking questions is to gather information relevant to assessing the situation and respond to the needs of the victim, care must be taken to ask the type of questions that illicit the most information. In these circumstances, it is highly inappropriate to ask questions simply out of curiosity.

There are two types of questions: close-ended and open-ended. Both are useful if victim service providers understand what each is and how each is used to obtain the information they are seeking.

Close-ended questions typically require a brief “yes” or “no” response and are best used to find out a specific piece of information or to clarify a specific point of discussion, but rarely anything more. They can also be used to minimize the discussion and focus on a specific fact. Examples of close-ended questions include:

  • “Are you in a safe place?”

  • “Do you want me to call anyone for you?”

  • “Would you like something to drink?”

  • “Would you like to attend the parole hearing?

  • “Would you like help filling out the application for victim compensation?”

Open-ended questions cannot be answered with a “yes” or “no” response. They allow the victim assistance provider to get more information and to expand the discussion. Open-ended questions also require the victim to offer a more thorough response that requires deeper consideration and thinking. Typically, they begin with how, when, what, where, why, or with tag lines like, “Tell me about . . .”

A word of caution: questions beginning with “why” tend to denote judgment, so it is best to avoid them when working with victims.

Open-ended questions encourage victims to take the lead in the conversation, to talk about what is important to them, and to share important information. Allowing the victim to take the lead tends to help build trust and rapport because it demonstrates an interest in the victim. Examples of open-ended questions include:

  • “How safe are you feeling now?”

  • “What would you need to feel safe right now?”

  • “Is there anything else you can tell me?”

  • “What special concerns do you have that I can help you address right now?”

While observing and carefully asking questions, the responsibility of the service provider is to:

  • Elicit information that assesses the victim’s primary needs and concerns and that can help develop an appropriate and effective case plan.

  • Provide victims of crime with a measure of safety and security.

  • Allow victims to ventilate and have their experiences validated.

  • Assist primary and secondary victims to stabilize their lives after victimization.

  • Help victims to understand and access supportive services that can help them cope in the aftermath of victimization.

  • Help victims to understand and participate in the criminal or juvenile justice system.

The victim service provider must be able to quickly assess the situation and the victim’s needs in order to determine the appropriate course of action to meet those needs, which may include safety and security for the victim and family members, medical care, mental health counseling, family assistance, applications for victim compensation, emergency housing, transportation, translators/interpreters, child care, victim/witness protection, information, or other services.

Some factors for the victim service provider to consider are:

  • Is the victim stable? What is the victim’s:

  • Emotional state?

  • Current sense of safety and security?

  • Ability or capacity to cope?

  • Current level of functioning?

  • What does the victim need?

  • What basic services does the victim need help getting?

  • Does the victim have a social support system?

  • If “yes,” the service provider and victim can work together to engage the victim’s support system, if needed and with approval from the victim.

  • If “no,” the service provider can help the victim develop a social support system through referrals for services, mental health interventions, and victim support groups.

Awareness of Cultural Styles of Communication

The changing demographics in the United States make it incumbent upon victim service providers to know more about the populations that make up the communities they serve. Victim service providers are likely to work with victims from many cultures, which include many different backgrounds and lifestyles. Cultural diversity includes the following demographics:

  • Gender.

  • Age.

  • Ethnicity.

  • Race.

  • Sexual orientation.

  • Educational background.

  • Religion.

  • Physical/mental ability.

  • Military/veteran status.

  • Lifestyle.

  • Immigrant status.

  • Political affiliation.

  • Socioeconomic status.

  • Geography (urban, suburban, rural, remote, and frontier).

By acquiring an awareness of cultural communication styles (i.e., how people express themselves, how they display emotions, and how they deal with crisis and conflict), victim service providers can adapt their own communication style to accommodate that of the victim.

Suggestions for increasing awareness of cultural styles include the following:

  • Learn about different cultures from your clients.

  • Take advantage of available resources (i.e., books, articles, films, music, etc.) to learn more about different cultures and their histories. There is much information available on the Internet. A word of caution: be aware that there are many negative stereotypes about cultural groups. Be willing to validate the information you are getting to avoid stereotyping anyone.

  • Attend cross-cultural communications training.

  • Learn how different cultures deal with crises and acquire support when in crisis (i.e., through elders, nature, spirit, clergy, etc.) to be able to make helpful and relevant referrals.

  • Learn how cultures communicate nonverbally. Some cultures do not make eye contact because it is considered disrespectful. In some cultures, a smile communicates that the person is embarrassed or does not understand and is afraid to ask questions. In other cultures, smiles signal superficiality and thoughtlessness.

  • Learn how different cultures react to conflict. In some cultures, conflict is dealt with directly, while in others open conflict is experienced as embarrassing or demeaning.

  • Listen actively and carefully when interacting with victims from different cultures. Again, check out any assumptions you draw from your observations.

  • Build relationships with individuals from different communities that can be used as a resource for learning about cultural norms and nuances and validating any information you are acquiring about their culture. These important contacts can also serve as gatekeepers to diverse communities and promote collaborative efforts that improve victim assistance within all cultures.

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