What You Don’t Say Matters: Using Body Language for Effective Patient Communication

Knowing how to assess patients’ body language, and ensuring your body language is positive, can change how patients perceive your practice.
Photo Credit: Jupiter Images, Getty Images

As an optometric consultant, the number one thing that I deal with is unspoken communication. Most people working in an optometric practice — whether that’s doctors, front desk personnel, or techs — don’t recognize that 93% of their communication is coming from their body language, not the words that come out of their mouths. 

For eye care professionals, we have to be thinking about what affects us in our office during our day-to-day. When a patient walks in the door, they’re assessing the body language of the first person they see. If you have negative body language when a patient walks in the door, they see that, but they also feel the energy of it. 

Body Language Tells
When we talk about body language, that includes everything you can do with your body to say — or not say — whatever you’re trying to communicate without words. This includes everything from touch, facial and body expressions, and pitch and vocal tone. 

Touch: Touch is one of the most vital senses, and there are physiological benefits of touch beyond any other form of communication. In business, this most often looks like a handshake, which can tell you a lot about a person. This can be a powerful tool to build a relationship with patients. 

Facial Expressions: A person’s face gives away a ton of information about how they feel. Are they smiling? Are they frowning? And what about eye contact? Making eye contact tells the other person they’re important and what they have to say is meaningful. It also builds trust and demonstrates sincerity. When you’re one-on-one with patients, it’s a good rule of thumb to maintain eye contact 70% of the time. 

Body Expressions: If someone’s arms are crossed, they’re trying to place a barrier between themselves and something they don’t like. If your arms are crossed, you’re likely to come off as negative, aggressive, unapproachable, or defensive, and it’s going to dramatically decrease your credibility. If you’re peering over your glasses at someone, this can come across as intimidating, and it can incite an argument or aggressive response. 

Pitch: Keeping up a varying pitch when talking with patients will help keep their interest. If you’re monotone, you can come across as boring. What volume are you talking at? This can also send different messages — loudness connotes power and possible disruptiveness, while speaking too softly can mean you’re insecure or shy. In your practice, you want to find a happy medium that is authoritative but doesn’t cross the line of being too loud or rude. It’s also important to vary the speed you’re talking, as this will help patients stay interested and engaged. 

It’s Showtime
What patients see when they walk in the door sets the tone of their visit throughout the whole office. I’ve started telling the practices I work with to imagine they’re at a play. The curtain is down, and the moment that curtain comes up, it’s showtime. When a patient walks in the door, you unlock the door, turn the lights on, sit down at your desk, it’s showtime. Once that happens, that patient expects that positivity and that experience. 

I give all my practices scripts so they know how to answer when a patient asks them certain questions. When we talk about body language, I can have two different people take that same script, and it means two totally different things based on their tone of voice, the look on their face, or the demeanor of their body. Two employees can say the same words, but the tone of voice and the look on your face are going to reflect certain things to the patient. 

The Front Desk is Key
The person sitting at your front desk, checking patients in, talking to people on the phone, are your number one salespeople. How do you want your salesperson to communicate with your patients? You’re trying to create relationships with them that are long term, and that are centered around the health of their eyes and purchasing things from your optical. That means our front desk workers need to build that relationship and start that with good communication and positive body language first. Your communication and your body language tell your patient who you are, not just as a person sitting at the front desk, but as a practice. They pick that up, that first impression, from the person they see when they walk in the door. If that’s the first time they’ve walked into that office, that’s their first impression, not just of that person, but now that gives your whole office that same tone and energy. 

I teach practices about body language because I know how important it is to a patients’ overall experience. When you’re interacting with a patient, you need to have the emotional intelligence to know if something is going well or not based on their body language. They don’t have to say anything, but their body language is speaking to you to tell you whether things are going great or things need to be improved. 

This requires a level of emotional intelligence that moves past just the basics of hearing what people are saying. We need to be able to study people and know when the conversation is going in a negative direction, and we need to change our way of presentation. There are certain things we need to always be looking for. Are they crossing their arms? Is their tone of voice changing? Is their body structure changing? Are they getting a little more rigid? Situations in our office can escalate because of poor communication, and everyone on your team needs to be able to recognize those things before they escalate. 

The things we don’t say are often far more important — and leave a more lasting impact — than the things we do say. Talking to your employees about body language and making them more aware of it can change how patients perceive you and your practice. 

  • Sharon Carter, ECOC

    Sharon Carter has over 30 years of optometric experience including working in an office as an office manager, sales and training for an optometric software company, and consulting for private practices. She started her own consulting company, Eye Care Optometric Consulting (ECOC), in 2001 and personally consults in offices all over the country, spreading her team-building philosophy. She is very energetic and enthusiastic, and for more than 15 years, she has been speaking and motivating staff at state associational meetings, national, and international conferences, sharing her company’s philosophy of “provide the best patient care possible and the money will follow.” To contact Sharon, email her at [email protected]

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