Ways To Improve Nonverbal Communication in Medicine

Updated on December 8, 2022
Ways To Improve Nonverbal Communication in Medicine

When a patient seeks out a care provider, one element that shapes their appointment is how well the provider receives the information, offers feedback, and shows they care. And no matter how long a provider has been practicing medicine, improving nonverbal communication skills must remain a focus. Here are some practical tips to help providers of all scopes refine these habits.

Maintain an Open Position

One of the most important nonverbal communication skills you can possess is maintaining an open position. No matter your scope of work, an open position tells your patients that you are engaging in the conversation, willing to hear them out, and ready to respond with well-thought-out action.

A helpful communication tip for midwives specifically is to begin and end every appointment in the open position so the patient has the time and space to ask questions or express fears surrounding their pregnancy. Often, these antenatal appointments will be full of scans, tests, and listening, and it can be easy to miss the opportunity to allow the patient to have the floor.

Avoid Reactive Behavior

Reacting to things a patient says or does can magnify situations or stir doubt within a patient. More than likely, your patients are already carrying a significant amount of concern. But if you express similar feelings, you can make the situation worse.

These skills may take some practice before you feel stable with patient-facing criteria, but a good rule of thumb is to think before acting and put professionalism in the driver’s seat. Specific types of reactive behavior to avoid include:

  • Laughing
  • Eyebrow raising
  • Combative responses
  • Interjecting before the patient finishes speaking

Understand Seating Arrangements

Because of spatial awareness, seating arrangements play a significant role in nonverbal communication. Where you sit in relation to where the patient sits can impact their ability to trust your word, receive the message, or feel comfortable confiding in you with their health concerns.

For example, if you face away from the patient with your back to them, it will be challenging to show you are actively listening or engaged. Another thing to be mindful of with spatial awareness is how close you are to the patient. You may make them uncomfortable if there isn’t enough breathing room between you two.

Remain Empathetic

Patients are relaying relatively sensitive, high-value information. As their care provider, you are the one who will receive the raw feelings around their concerns. Remaining empathetic can show compassion, engagement, and a sense of shared concern. This form of nonverbal communication can make or break a patient’s ability to trust that you care and will help.

Any time a patient has expressed concern about your inability to show empathy, they may inform others and request a new provider. Improving and refining this skill throughout your career can be the difference between a successful patient history and a high turnover.

Understandably, improving your nonverbal communication while working in medicine is a work in progress, regardless of tenure. Whether you’re a midwife, primary care physician, or medical assistant, your work is valuable, and patient communication is a priority.