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Say what you mean with body language

Image: Blend Images Photography | Veer

As a healthcare provider, you know that a patient’s body language often tells you more than her words do about how she’s feeling. At the same time, you’re sending your patients messages with your own body language. Rarely do we think about what message our body language might be sending. If your body language is relaxed and confident, you can help patients feel more relaxed and confident.

Many of your gestures, or nonverbals, are called baseline behaviors. You do them every day. You’ve been doing them for years. They’re automatic and may or may not be sending the message you want.

Five Body Gestures to Avoid

The following common five gestures do not display self-confidence; in fact, they actually lower your image in the eyes of the patient and fellow healthcare providers.

1. Fig-leaf hands. When you stand with one hand on top of the other, covering the groin region, you look smaller. Your body is saying, “I’m harmless,” “I’m shy” or “I’m afraid.” No matter how confident you feel or how much you know, the fig-leaf pose says, “I’m trying to be small.”

It’s like calling someone on the phone and then saying, “Oh, it’s just me.” No! It’s not just you! It’s You. The confident You. Get rid of that fig-leaf gesture (and the “fig-leaf” words “just me”).

2. Hands or thumbs in pockets. Hanging your thumbs off of your pockets, or having your hands deep in your pockets, usually sends a message of diminished self-confidence, something like “Geez, I hope you like me.” Worse yet, hands in pockets jiggling change is as good as saying, “I’m nervous and I hope you like me.” It can also send a message of exaggerated self-importance such as “I know I’m pretty neat” or “Let’s get moving here, I’m really bored.”

Pockets and waistbands are fraught with meaning. Tucking your thumbs into your waistband usually says, “I’m staking my territory,” which is a gesture of power, not influence. Avoid pockets and waistbands.

3. Hands clasped behind your back. Depending on context, this gesture, similar to the fig-leaf, can make you look smaller, as if to say, “I hope you like me.”

However, if someone has his hands clasped behind his back as part of a bigger pattern, often referred to as “the royal strut” (erect posture, slow gait, head held high), the body is saying, “You’d better fear me.” The royal strut conveys superiority and extreme self-confidence, and sends the message “I know I have power.”

4. Arms crossed over your chest. This stance is probably the most misinterpreted gesture. To some people it says, “I’m annoyed.” Others think it says, “I’m not open to discussion. I stand firm on what I said.”

But here’s another way to look at it. Some people automatically cross their arms when they are listening. Some cross their arms when they are cold. Maybe they are simply trying to hide a spot on their shirt or uniform. This gesture may be comfortable and easy, but it’s difficult to overcome what others read into this gesture. Try your best to avoid it simply because it’s loaded with so many misunderstandings and meanings of discomfort or being closed off.

5. Hands on hips. While this gesture makes you look bigger‚ it definitely carries a connotation of annoyance and judgment. It often sends the message “I’m ready for a fight” or “I’m really annoyed with you or the situation.”

Next, three good body gestures…

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Sharon Sayler

Sharon Sayler trains, counsels and coaches professionals to become stronger, more influential communicators and leaders. Her latest book, What Your Body Says (and How to Master the Message), will help you take your communication skills to the next level and achieve the results you want—stronger relationships, influential leadership and compassionate responses! To order the book, visit sharonsayler.com.
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3 Responses to Say what you mean with body language

  1. Great article about body gestures. I’m a soon-to-be nurse moving from a background in photography, so I’m very aware of my body language as well as the body language of my customers and co-workers. It’s important to remember that your patients can read your body language and make assumptions about you too!

  2. lady

    hahhahha… so true!

  3. StCindy

    This is excellent advice for dealing with peers, doctors, aides, administrators, etc. but if I can’t find a chair, I always always crouch down to eye-level with my patients, or lower. If you don’t make that eye-to-eye contact, you miss the little clues that speak volumes about the patient condition.

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