As clinicians, our body language matters. It’s often easy to overlook the non-verbal side of caregiving as we can get caught up in providing the best possible care to our patients. However, what we say and do should go hand-in-hand as we cultivate an environment where our patients feel seen, heard, and understood.
Being more mindful of our body language enables us to create a safe space where patients feel comfortable and involved in their care. Whether explaining how a new type of medication works or communicating a devastating diagnosis, we need to be aware of what our bodies are saying–just as much as the words we speak.
This thought process also applies to how we interact with our colleagues. What we do with our bodies sends signals to our teammates that can affect our relationships with them and how we care for patients together. As we think about our body language around patients and colleagues, here are a couple of reasons why body language is essential when providing care:
- Our body language tells others that they matter and we care. We exchange a lot of information with many people throughout the day, and our body language must match our verbal language. Think of body language as a complement to verbal language. It can punctuate the words we say, which is beneficial for communicating a complete message. Conversely, body language can also contradict our intended message if it conflicts with what we express, which we do not want. If we tell a patient, “You’re fine; there’s nothing for you to worry about,” yet, we avoid eye contact or hesitate before speaking, the patient is receiving mixed messages. Are they really fine? Should they actually worry? Do you, the physician, even care? Non-verbal messages tend to override verbal messages, which is especially true and noticeable when the two are inconsistent or contradictory. Be consistent with matching your verbal and body language to avoid misunderstandings with patients and colleagues.
- Our body language tells patients they can trust us. Non-verbal communication is crucial to how we make a first impression. Eye contact, physical proximity, and uncrossed arms are some body language cues that make it more likely for patients to engage with us and feel more satisfied. Patients also report feeling a stronger alliance with their physicians when body language displays genuine care, attention, and concern; this in turn leads to patients having greater adherence to treatment.
- Our body language can supersede cultural and verbal language barriers. Body language conveys things that verbal language cannot, and this applies across languages and cultures as well. We may have patients who can’t speak our verbal language. Even if they have an interpreter, we must remember to convey our communication to the patient, which can be achieved through appropriate non-verbal gestures. Utilizing proper body language along with short, direct phrases spoken slowly to the patient, not the interpreter, keeps your interaction patient-centered and invites them to be involved in their own care. Even without an interpreter, body language can help fill in verbal gaps and encourage the patient to trust that you’re prioritizing their needs and that you care about them.
What we communicate with our bodies can make or break how our patients, their families, and our colleagues interact with us. Regard your body language as an opportunity to establish more connection and understanding with the people you interact with each day, an opportunity we should never miss.
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Mark Shapiro, MD is a hospitalist for Providence Medical Group in Sonoma County. He is also the host and producer of Explore The Space, a critically acclaimed national podcast that examines the interface of healthcare and society.