The Importance of Nonverbal Communication in Healthcare

Nonverbal communication is a very broad term used to describe any communication that is not related to the spoken word such as facial expressions, gestures, body language and many more. Humans are always communicating even when we don’t speak, the saying “silence can be louder than words” is very much true. This blog will discuss the importance of nonverbal communication in Healthcare and will give advice to healthcare professionals on which nonverbal clues they have to look out for and how they can properly train them. 

 

Key Takeaways 

Humans are communicating between 70 – 80 percent through nonverbal communication. 

When a doctor’s words don’t match their body language, patients tend to believe the nonverbal cues more.

The main types of nonverbal communication are facial expressions, body language, gestures, eye contact, haptics and space.

Healthcare professionals can make a strong first impression by being mindful of nonverbal cues, attire, and maintaining a calm demeanor during the first two crucial minutes of a patient interaction.

Videolab helps healthcare professionals with nonverbal communication training through self-recorded interactions, diverse feedback, and analyzing emotional impact.

 

Importance of nonverbal communication 

Interpersonal communication experts are like detectives trying to crack the code of human interaction. While they can’t definitively say what percentage of communication is nonverbal, there’s no doubt it plays a massive role.

Early studies, like the one by Albert Mehrabian in 1967, grabbed headlines by suggesting a whopping 93% of communication is nonverbal (with 38% based on tone of voice, 55% on body language and 7% on words). While this specific breakdown has been challenged by later research, it sparked a crucial conversation.

Modern research suggests the impact of nonverbal communication falls somewhere between 70% and 80%. That means the way we arch an eyebrow, fold our arms, or modulate our voice can hold significantly more weight than the actual words we say.

 

Nonverbal Communication in Healthcare 

In medical consultations, what’s not said can be just as important as what is. Nonverbal communication, through gestures, facial expressions, and tone of voice, reveals emotions and builds rapport. When a doctor’s words don’t match their body language, patients tend to believe the nonverbal cues more. This highlights the importance for both doctors and patients to be aware of their nonverbal behavior. A doctor’s nonverbal communication can significantly impact how patients perceive their interest, approachability, and the entire consultation’s success. Studies even show a link between positive doctor nonverbal cues and patient satisfaction, understanding, and even fewer malpractice claims. It’s clear that doctors who are mindful of their nonverbal communication can create better interactions with their patients.

 

Types of Nonverbal Communication

  • Facial expressions

Facial expressions are particularly helpful in overcoming language barriers because both humans and animals use them in similar ways to convey emotions regardless of cultural differences. These universally understood emotions include anger, contempt, surprise, fear, happiness, sadness, and disgust.

  • Body language 

Body language speaks volumes! Even before you start talking you will give a lot of hints to the other person whether you care, you are being honest or you listened. If your body language matches the words you are saying it will create trust, clarity and a strong connection but on the other hand it can also foster tension, confusion and a sense of mistrust if done improperly. 

  • Gestures

Forget the stereotype of “angry Italians” waving their hands! We use gestures on a daily basis to punctuate our words, to emphasize key points and to reveal our emotions. There are 2 types of gestures, firstly the ones we do actively such as a wave which signals a greeting and secondly the ones we do subconsciously such as hiding our hands when we get nervous.

These nonverbal cues can build trust and rapport, or create confusion if they clash with spoken words. By understanding and using gestures effectively, we can become more powerful communicators.

  • Eye contact

Our eyes are powerful communicators, revealing emotions and intentions that words alone might not.

Making Connections: Maintaining eye contact during a conversation demonstrates attentiveness and engagement. This fosters a more focused and productive exchange, allowing both parties to feel heard and understood and further build a trustworthy relationship.

 

Understanding Nuances: While avoiding eye contact entirely can signal disinterest or nervousness, it’s important to find a balance. Looking away briefly can help us gather our thoughts or avoid appearing overly intense.

 

Respectful Communication: Eye contact can also create a sense of intimacy. However, it’s important to maintain a respectful gaze that focuses on the face rather than other areas. This ensures clear communication and avoids any discomfort.

  • Haptics

Physical contact is a powerful tool for nonverbal communication, allowing us to express a variety of emotions. A reassuring hand on the shoulder expresses sympathy, whereas a lighthearted push indicates familiarity.

Touch, however, is a sophisticated language in which cultural conventions, social status and gender play an important role. Women frequently use touch to communicate affection and connection, but men may use it to assert authority. Understanding these factors is important to avoid misinterpretations. 

  • Space

Ever felt a sudden tension in a conversation? It could be because someone stepped too close. Nonverbal communication relies heavily on personal space, the invisible bubble that surrounds us. While cultural conventions and conditions may influence our comfort zone, the demand for personal space is universal. We subconsciously use this space to express a wide range of emotions and intents, ranging between closeness and affection to dominance or even hostility.(Source)

 

The Two Minute Rule 

Another way to improve your nonverbal communication for healhcare professionals is to keep The Two minute Rule in mind. After entering an examination room new patients tend to form an opinion in the first 2 minutes therefore healthcare professionals have to be extra aware of how they present themselves. Not only the nonverbal clues mentioned above have to be carefully considered to create a comforting atmosphere but also how to dress and potentially holding Artifacts in your hands while approaching such as Injections or Evaluation Forms have an impact on the patients perception.

Nervousness is contagious because our feelings are oftentimes reflecting on to whom we communicate, therefore staying calm and composed is essential when entering a consultation. Think of anxiety as a yawn: it spreads! If you enter a room trembling or looking anxious, individuals around you will most likely pick up on your mood, creating an uncomfortable environment. On the other hand, confident body language makes others feel at ease. Staying composed allows you to project a more positive and engaging appearance.

Doctors are not robots there are a lot of influencing factors both private and work related that can affect their mood. Therefore it can be a good tip to take a deep breath and make a mental adjustment before entering a consultation to be consciously aware of the nonverbal clues you are sending out especially in the first 2 minutes.

 

Mindfulness and emotional self control.

Nonverbal cues, unlike spoken words, can’t be simply made up. A forced smile or fake tone is easily noticed, potentially causing some distance and hindering communication.

This is when mindfulness and emotional self-regulation come into play. Mindfulness, or the practice of focusing on the present moment without judgment, helps healthcare practitioners to be fully present with their patients. They may fully focus on the discussion by reducing mental clutter and distractions, picking up on small nonverbal clues that might otherwise go unnoticed. This increased awareness improves empathy and understanding, allowing healthcare providers to adapt their communication to patients’ underlying problems.

 

Metacognition

The good news is that both mindfulness and emotional self-control are skills that can be honed through practice. Metacognition, the ability to “think about thinking,” plays a crucial role in this development. By becoming aware of our own thoughts and emotions, we can learn to regulate them. Mindfulness meditation practices, for example, train us to observe our thoughts and emotions without judgment, allowing us to choose how we respond. Similarly, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can equip us with tools to identify and challenge negative thought patterns that might lead to emotional outbursts.

 

Emotional Mirroring.

Emotional mirroring highlights the importance of nonverbal comunication in healthcare. it is a fascinating phenomenon in social interaction where we unconsciously imitate the emotions, expressions, or behaviors of the person we’re talking to. It’s a subtle dance, a way of building rapport and showing we’re on the same wavelength. Think of it as a social intelligence skill, a kind of unspoken agreement that strengthens the connection.

Here’s how it works: imagine you’re having a conversation with a friend. As they share a funny story, you find yourself smiling and laughing along. Their enthusiasm becomes contagious, and you’re swept up in their positive energy. This is emotional mirroring in action. You might even unconsciously start using similar phrases or gestures, mirroring their excitement.

But emotional mirroring goes beyond just happy emotions. It can also involve mimicking negative emotions, postures, and even speech patterns. If you’re talking to someone who’s feeling frustrated, you might find yourself frowning or crossing your arms in a similar way. You might even start using more negative language, reflecting their mood.

The key thing to remember is that emotional mirroring is usually an unconscious process. We don’t deliberately set out to copy the other person; it happens naturally as we try to connect and empathize. However, there can be downsides to this social chameleon act.

So, how can you be aware of emotional mirroring and its potential dangers? Here are some tips:

Pay attention to your own emotions: Before, during, and after conversations, take a moment to check in with yourself. How are you feeling? Does your mood seem to have shifted in response to the other person’s emotions?

Be mindful of your body language: Are you unconsciously mimicking the other person’s posture or gestures?

Don’t be afraid to disagree: Emotional connection doesn’t require complete agreement. If you have a different perspective, voice it respectfully.

Focus on active listening: Pay attention to what the other person is saying, but also be aware of your own internal world.

 

The EMPATHY Framework

The EMPATHY Framework equips medical professionals with a checklist to understand patients’ emotions. This easy-to-remember acronym (Eye contact, Muscles of facial expression, Posture, Affect, Tone of voice, Hearing the whole patient, Your response) helps healthcare professionals understand nonverbal cues, fostering stronger patient connections and more empathetic care.

E: Eye Contact – Making eye contact demonstrates attentiveness and establishes trust with the patient. It also helps clinicians to detect small emotional swings via eye movements.

M: Muscles of Facial Expression – Recognising emotions on a patient’s face is critical.  Understanding grimaces, furrowed brows, and forced smiles can reveal important information about their emotions and anxieties.

P: Posture – An open posture (uncrossed arms, leaning slightly forward) indicates respect and attention, whereas a closed posture (crossed arms, slouching) may indicate uneasiness or defensiveness.

A: Affect – Beyond words, clinicians should be mindful of their patients’ overall emotional state. This could include recognising symptoms of worry, despair, or rage that would otherwise go unnoticed through spoken communication.

T: Tone of Voice – The manner in which something is delivered can be as important as the content. A kind and sympathetic tone fosters trust, but a loud or domineering tone creates distance and impairs communication.

H: Hearing the Whole Patient –  Nonverbal cues do not exist in isolation. To completely understand a patient’s emotional condition, doctors should take into account their story and background.

Y: Your Response – Being mindful of your own emotions is essential. Doctors should not let their emotions influence their perception of the patient’s nonverbal signs.(Source)

 

How Videolab improves nonverbal communication in healthcare

Videolab can be a powerful tool for improving communication skills, particularly nonverbal communication, for healthcare professionals. Here’s how.

  1. Safe recording and reflection: Videolab enables trainees to record consultations (simulated, actual, or peer) in a secure setting. Reviewing these recordings encourages self-reflection, which is essential for effective communication. By observing oneself engage, trainees can become more aware of their nonverbal signals (facial expressions, body language, etc.) and how these influence communication.
  1. Multi-source Feedback: Videolab enables the secure sharing of recordings with approved evaluators and peers. This allows trainees to obtain feedback from a variety of perspectives, and helps in identifying areas for growth in nonverbal communication.
  1. Emphasize Emotional Intelligence: Videolab’s capacity to capture complex and diverse interactions makes it excellent for assessing emotional intelligence in healthcare workers. By studying recordings of consultations containing various emotions, trainees can improve their understanding and response to patients’ emotional states utilizing nonverbal clues. 
Author
  • Leon

    Leon leverages his expertise in Videolab at Codifc, where he is involved both in the content creation process and Outreach. Concurrently, Leon is actively pursuing a degree in International Business at Geneva Business School, demonstrating his commitment to continuous learning and professional development.

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