1. Eye Contact-Maintaining good eye contact is a great method of becoming engaged with the speaker. It demonstrates focus and attentiveness to what is being spoken. There are some cultural implications with direct eye contact (and you should always have awareness of these), but for most people looking into the eyes of another person most of the time is essential to making them feel heard.
2. Smiling-In most cultures, a smile is a gesture of welcome and approval. Smiling encourages the speaker to continue speaking (good goal!). Conversely, frowning implies disapproval and should be avoided unless you are using this to accentuate a point. For instance, a counseling patient might provide conflicting information. Displaying a frown while asking about this incongruence can accentuate the question about clarification.
3. Gestures-A lot of people “speak with their hands”. While this can be habitual, like saying umm, it is worthwhile to try to tone down this particular habit. It can be extremely distracting to the speaker. Not to mention, some gesturing may be perceived as threatening.
4. Proxemics-Everyone has a different comfort level with how close you get to each other. A good rule of thumb is at least 3 feet in distance. You both should be able to reach out and grasp hands for a handshake comfortably. When you sit with a patient, you should be close enough so that their normal voice tone is easily heard. Be mindful that different cultures have different concepts of appropriate proxemics.
5. Touch-Handshakes at first meeting may be the only touch that is needed with a counseling patient. You may at some point find it appropriate to touch someone’s hand in a session. There are times when I have given a friendly or encouraging hug to a patient as they are leaving my office. I personally always ask for permission before I give a hug, but touching someone’s hand would probably be a spontaneous gesture. Bear in mind that many times counseling patients have histories of trauma and we do not want to contribute to any re-traumatization. You should never “grab” a patient or intentionally startle them with your touch.
As with everything, examine your own personal biases with these points. We all have work to do on ourselves so that we can best help others!