The non-verbal side of communications for a healthcare practice is so easily overlooked

In the simple routine of a doctor-patient encounter, the doctor’s ability to diagnose and treat a condition is a major communications exchange. And body language—the gestures, postures, expressions that communicate physical, mental or emotional states—is about 60 percent of the process.

As Psychology Today describes it: “People are constantly throwing off a storm of signals. These may be silent (non-verbal) messages communicated through the sender’s body movements, facial expressions, voice tone and loudness.” Conscious or unconscious gestures and movements are always part of the process for all the participants:

The doctor: In addition to the elements of the clinical exchange, seeks to treat the patient with respect, win trust, build rapport, gain acceptance of, and compliance with, treatment regimen…plus a dozen other objectives.

The patient: Who is likely nervous, concerned and annoyed, and may be resistant to (or fearful of) treatment recommendations.

The staff: In a typical appointment, the patient will spend a percentage of the time face-to-face with the doctor, and some time with others in the office.

The point is that body language abounds. It’s too pervasive and too important to ignore, and it requires practice and training to be constantly aware and to communicate to the benefit of others. The entire clinic needs to be sensitive to their own non-verbal communications, and to properly read and help interpret the “storm of signals” thrown off by others.

5 fundamental tips about body language…

The psychology of reading and expressing non-verbal communications fills textbooks, and a deeper dive into this topic is well worth the time and effort. As a jumping-off point, here are some of the fundamental tips and techniques about the language of non-verbal communications:

Smile Power: A simple smile is contagious, easily transmitted to another person, and a message of a positive and helpful attitude. What’s more, a genuine smile (with eye contact) also communicates confidence.

Eyes and Face: Maintaining eye contact communicates your attention, interest and focus on the other person. Nods signal agreement. And if the patient (or other person) is studying the floor, looking away when responding, or failing to make eye contact, it likely signals nervousness or lack of trust.

Arms and Shoulders: Widely recognized “arms crossed” is threatening; or rising shoulders are negatives and may be a lack of confidence, disbelief or disapproval. Relaxed and open position of arms is a positive, receptive signal.

Speech and Tone: Clearly spoken words, delivered at an unhurried pace and a moderate tone of voice, tends to communicate warmth and self-confidence.

Breath. Pause. Don’t Rush: If there’s one top-of-the-list complaint about doctors, patients hate to feel that he or she is in a hurry. Being in a rush gives off many non-verbal signals, and there’s no universal cure. Before meeting the patient, take a deep breath and pause for a moment. You may be seeing dozens of patients today, but this patient is only seeing one doctor—you. If you appear to be short on time, anxious to get to the next patient, or thinking about something else, your body language communicates disrespect to the patient…even when it’s unintended.

The downside and the up side…

There’s a great deal more to body language skills, and it’s worth the time, effort and training to be aware of non-verbal signals—your own, your staff and your patients. Considering that only 50 percent (or less, by some estimates) of person-to-person communications is via the spoken word and tone of voice, imagine the added trust and rapport building that’s possible.

The wrong body language can easily out-shout the spoken word, and the patient may never hear (or dismiss) important health information and instructions that they need. Conversely, if you want patients to be comfortable in a stressful environment, to truly understand what you have to communicate, and to trust you and your recommendations, work on your verbal and your non-verbal messaging.