It was like Jack was “reading” me. Was I a threat? Could I be trusted?

It was Jack’s first night at a homeless shelter.

First, he slept on a friend’s couch, but the friend moved.

Then he slept in his car, but it got towed.

Finally, he slept in the woods, but it was getting lethally cold.

I took Jack back to an office so I could register him as a new resident at the shelter. On overhead fluorescent light buzzed loudly, flickering occasionally.

I asked Jack mundane questions about his name, birthdate, and last address.

Jack answered quietly, but something felt different.

Jack NEVER took his eyes off me.

He watched every hand movement and facial expression.

He listened carefully to the nuance of everything I said.

At first, I thought that Jack was “merely” terrified (the first night at a shelter is terrifying).

There was something more, though…

It was like Jack was “reading” me.

It was as if he were a detective analyzing clues to figure out if I was trustworthy.

It took me years to realize what was happening.

Poverty and Nonverbal Cues

Research suggests that low-income individuals pay more attention to nonverbal cues than wealthier individuals. In fact, low-income individuals are more accurate in reading nonverbal cues.


Low-income individuals are often in a low power position. They need to understand the intent of the people around them (who can help or harm them).

The most critical information (bias, power, expectations and emotions) is communicated nonverbally.

It makes sense, then, that lower income individuals would focus on nonverbal communication.

What does this mean for you?

Your nonverbal communication is key to de-escalation with everyone.

It is especially important, though, when you are working with individuals experiencing homelessness or poverty.

If you want to learn more about nonverbal de-escalation skills, you’re in luck. Our next training is all about that!!

Have a great week!



p.s. I got several emails from staff who are on the autism spectrum asking about how they can do the nonverbal component of de-escalation better. We are going to do some research in this area.

Stay in touch

Receive weekly tips from Ryan about how to work with homeless, addicted and mentally ill patrons.