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  • Writer's pictureTim Ionnides MD

The Importance of Understanding Body Language

I’ve run my dermatology practice for over two decades, and in that time I’ve sought to learn every way in which I can make a visit to my office a better experience. I can admit it — nobody wants to go to the doctor’s office. Whether it be for a routine check-up or something more urgent and worrying, I know visiting can be an anxiety-inducing event and I would hate for someone to avoid making an appointment out of fear or discomfort. I’ve tried to make my waiting rooms a pleasant space to await an appointment, removing harsh lighting, adding local art and greenery, and even getting cable for the televisions. Most of my nurses have been with me for over 15 years, meaning that there is always a familiar face to greet you when you walk in the door. But perhaps the biggest change I made in the interest of better patient care was removing computers from my examination rooms.

You see, although technological advancements have digitized the workplace, I would argue that it has not always been for the better. While these developments have most certainly been revolutionary and improved productivity, in the medical field I have found that when used without discretion you pose the risk of losing the human element that is imperative to patient care. By the time I had begun working as a doctor after graduating from medical school computers in exam rooms were already the norm, used to quickly input information without the need for messy handwriting or cumbersome clipboards.

However, once I had started my own practice I realized that the “norm” for everybody else did not mean it was what was best for my business, and as the leader I had the ability to make calls that could change it. I found that increasingly during appointments, my back turned to the patient while clicking boxes meant that I was missing a crucial aspect of their communication. Yes I could hear what they were saying, but not only was eye contact missing (which itself is an incredibly important aspect of active listening), I was missing what wasn’t being said — their nonverbal communication.

Body language in the exam room

While studies have produced varying results on the complex topic of nonverbal communication, most experts agree that 70 to 93 percent — i.e. the majority — of all communication is nonverbal. This means that in order to not only effectively communicate, but truly understand what a person is saying you must pay a significant amount of attention to how they are saying it. Sometimes embarrassment or fear can get in the way of a patient saying outright when something is wrong, which is why it is crucial for me to give them my full and undivided attention when we are speaking. For example, if I ask a patient a particular question about their health they may say out loud that they aren’t having any issues. If I am facing my computer when they answer, in all likelihood I will take what they have said at face value and move on. However, by making eye contact and paying attention to their body language I may notice that they averted their gaze, began to blink more rapidly or initiated a self-conscious gesture such as playing with their hair or rubbing the back of their neck.

The applications are endless

These indicators could push me to dig a little deeper, ensuring that together my patients and I don’t miss something that could prove to be important, and while it’s clear that recognizing the importance of body language in communication can be critical in my field, the applications can really extend to any aspect of both your personal and professional life. For example, several studies have found that both children and adults learn better from teachers who use gestures. The studies were oriented in particular around learning math and foreign language, finding that simple gestures were an easy way to help people remember unfamiliar words and concepts. Regardless of their age, students who were taught using gestures performed better on tests and generally developed a better grasp of the material they were learning than those who didn’t.

Public speakers can also benefit from the knowledge of body language. Seeing more physical motion can help people pay attention for a longer period of time, a theory that was validated in a study of TED speakers. Watched by hundreds of volunteers, the study showed that people were more interested in the speakers who used gestures, and some research has also suggested that using more gestures makes you come across as more energetic, warm and agreeable. Gesturing even helps people better identify your tone of voice. By making the conscious choice to talk with your hands, you can better teach and inform other people.

If you are reading this and worrying about becoming distracted due to your own gestures don’t worry — research has shown that using nonverbal communication can also help you do a better job in this regard. Making gestures while explaining things can actually help lighten your cognitive load, allowing you to think through problems as you’re talking. There’s a comfortability that comes with feeling free to gesture while you speak, and inevitably being comfortable will help make your communication more effective, and professionals across practically any sector can use this information to better disseminate information, whether that be through webinars, sales pitches or other informational and educational materials.

Some common body language tips

It is important to note that body language is not universal — nonverbal communication can shift from culture to culture, as well as context to context — but these are some common patterns within our society that can help you both read others as well as ensure that you are conveying what you wish effectively.

When standing, maintaining a good posture and keeping your hands at your sides can help you project a confidence that is casual and comfortable. Placing more than one hand in your pocket at any given time can come off as both too casual and closed off, and crossing your arms indicates discomfort or defensiveness. By placing one foot slightly in front of the other, you give yourself a stronger footing that allows you to maintain balance without swaying. If you are in conversation with someone, there is an appropriate distance for the message. Looming too close can make people feel uncomfortable, but being too far away can make you seem distant and avoidant. If you can be heard comfortably without projecting but there isn’t enough space for people to walk through the conversation, you are probably in the “sweet spot.”

When seated, sit up but don’t look like you have a rod jammed down your spine. By leaning forward slightly, you can indicate to the person on the other side of the conversation that you are engaged and attentive. Conversely, leaning back indicates either disinterest or a lackadaisical attitude that verges on rudeness. Avoiding tapping or other signs of discomfort or nervousness can also help show that you are fully engaged, and keeping your hands relaxed and feet still again projects confidence.

Our body language is a crucial mode of communication, and yet for many people it remains in their subconscious. While there is nothing inherently wrong with this, becoming aware of both how we are nonverbally communicating to others and vice versa can help us not only better communicate with those around us, but also better project who we want to be. I know that by giving my full undivided to patients and paying attention to their entire way of communicating, I have become both a better doctor and human being in the world.


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