Risk Management Tools & Resources


Nonverbal Communication as an Essential Element of Patient-Centered Care


Effective verbal communication is the bedrock of high-quality, patient-centered care. Healthcare providers undoubtedly are aware of the continued emphasis and importance placed on verbal communication through various quality measures and standards. However, good nonverbal communication — facial expressions, gestures, eye contact, posture, and tone of voice — also is essential. Research suggests that the majority of daily communication is nonverbal, which stresses the importance that this aspect of communication plays in human interactions.1

The ability to understand and use nonverbal communication, or body language, is a powerful tool that can help healthcare professionals connect with patients in a positive way and reinforce mutual understanding and respect.2

Providers should have situational awareness of their nonverbal communication so they can recognize potentially problematic body language and consciously change it. For example, certain situations might trigger negative nonverbal reactions, such as seeing a difficult patient, managing a patient complaint, or dealing with stress. A number of strategies can help healthcare providers consciously improve nonverbal communication. For example:

  • Smile and maintain appropriate eye contact, but do not stare.
  • Show interest in what the patient is saying and avoid tapping your fingers, gazing out of the window, looking at the clock, yawning, and other nonverbal actions that might indicate that you're bored or in a hurry.
  • Sit when you can, and lean forward to show that you're engaged. Don't stand looking down on the patient in a paternalistic stance.
  • Nod your head to show you are listening.
  • Maintain an open and relaxed posture and avoid crossing your arms or other gestures that might suggest unwillingness to listen, disapproval, or a judgmental attitude. Encourage the patient to share relevant and complete information.3

The use of technology also can result in nonverbal cues that might frustrate or alienate patients. Providers should take care to avoid habits associated with electronic health records (EHRs) that create barriers to patient engagement, such as turning your back on the patient while typing information, looking at the computer during sensitive discussions, or failing to explain to the patient what you’re including in the record. Some strategies that might help include explaining the EHR and some of its benefits to the patient, setting the computer aside during discussions with the patient, or using a scribe to document the clinical encounter.

For more communication techniques and guidance, see MedPro's Communicating Effectively With Patients to Improve Quality and Safety guideline.


1 Thompson, J. (2011, September 30). Is nonverbal communication a numbers game? Psychology Today. Retrieved from www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/beyond-words/201109/is-nonverbal-communication-numbers-game

2 Segal, J., Smith, M., Boose, G., & Jaffe, J. (2016, April). Nonverbal communication. Retrieved from www.helpguide.org/articles/relationships/nonverbal-communication.htm

3 Rogers, C. (2002, February). Your body language speaks loudly: Nonverbal communication makes patient more comfortable. The American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. Retrieved from www2.aaos.org/acadnews/2002news/b16-7.htm

MedPro Twitter


View more on Twitter