The use of touch can be very therapeutic. It can also help to de-escalate behavior. However, this is an intervention that must be used wisely with the right person under the right circumstances. Just like humor, we have to use it judiciously.
Consider that when we touch someone, we invade their personal space. Under the right conditions, this can be useful and even welcome. For example, I was best man at my best friend’s wedding many years ago, and as he was saying his vows at the altar, he began to falter, stammer, and stutter. I was standing right behind him at that moment and I reached out and gently squeezed his shoulder. That single, physical act calmed him down enough so that he was able to finish his wedding vows. It also made me hugely popular with all the single women at the wedding reception. Crisis intervention does have its benefits! The point is that touch is a form of nonverbal communication, and when used sensibly, it can have some very positive effects.
There are, of course, some students, care receivers, and others that we should not use touch with either as an intervention or even in our desire to communicate. Those individuals with sensory issues or whose sense of personal space is very stringent might perceive our nonverbal attempts as rude, invasive, or even hostile. When I lived overseas, I had to be careful how I communicated. Most of my Western European and Australian friends often commented to me on how they noticed the way in which I used my nonverbal communication with them. Fortunately, they perceived it as a show of friendship on my part, but it demonstrated to me that depending on a person’s culture, touch can be interpreted differently. This is something else we have to take into consideration when we consider whether to use physical contact. In some cultures, our use of touch can actually create problems. People bring their culture with them when they travel or move to a different location.
Let’s acknowledge that touch as a form of communication or intervention can have different effects on different people. Because of this reality, we have to be careful with how we use it. Please share your “touch” stories with us!