Patient-centered communication

5 nonverbal behaviors for improving patient trust

So many of my medical appointments start the same way: in a small room, one-on-one with a nurse who turns his or her back to me running through a list of my past medical conditions and current medications, ticking boxes on a screen as I say “yes” and “no.”

“Are you still taking a multi-vitamin?”

“Are you still taking COQ10?”


It’s the live-action version of a healthcare form.

 The nurse is gathering important information from me, but during this exchange, with their nonverbal communication, the nurse tells me that my presence as a human being is uninteresting and even a bother.

Small improvements in the way providers interact with patients can make a huge impact on the way patients feel about talking with doctors.

And research shows us that patients feel more positively about medical providers with stronger nonverbal skills. For example, medical students with higher nonverbal sensitivity are seen as more well liked by patients and have higher ratings of compassion.


I have highlighted 5 key areas where medical staff can focus improving their nonverbal skills to maximize improving the patient/provider dynamic:

  1. Orient your body toward the patient

    There is nothing more off-putting than discussing an embarrassing health problem with someone’s back.

    Physicians today have to enter information into unwieldy computer systems. But if at all possible, in the initial moment when the patient is describing why they have come to see you, turn your body toward them.

  2. Limit computer and phone time when talking with patient

    You must enter the patient’s information into the digital file, but be as sparing as possible with digital devices. And if you must turn your back on the patient to type while they are talking, explain to them that you are turning away from them for their benefit. For example, “I’m going to type some notes while you talk.”

  3. Use vocal utterances like “uh-huh” to show you’re listening

    In the communication biz, we call them “backchannel cues.” They are words and phrases that we all say to let another person know we are listening without interrupting. So, as your patient tells their health story, give them a few utterances, things like, “yeah,” “uh-huh,” “I see.”

  4.  Make eye contact

    Make eye contact when the patient is speaking. Make eye contact when you are speaking.  A decent amount of eye contact shows that you are paying attention. It also shows that you are confident, and since you are the healthcare authority figure in the room, the patient will be soothed by a certain amount of confidence from you.

  5. Listen to patient’s main concern for 1 minute

    Really listen to what the patient is saying, even if they are just coming in for a common sinus infection. Most patients want 1 minute of uninterrupted time to explain their concern to their doctor. When you consider they have left work, driven to your office, and waited for their appointment to start, 1 minute is not a lot to ask.


Most of the emotional content of what we say is nonverbal. The literal, informational content is verbal. Things like actual diagnosis, instructions, follow-up care, will be delivered via verbal communication. But if you want to communicate concern, a desire for an ongoing relationship, joy in seeing a return patient, intangible factors like these, the best way is to enhance your nonverbal communication.



Jessica KnappComment