Use body language to improve your patient encounter

While body language can be interpreted in many ways and it’s not an exact science, it is often possible to read body language and have a basic understanding of a persons mood or dispositions and the rapport that people have with each other through observing non-verbal communication. This issue focuses on reading everything that hands can tell you and ways to use your hands to influence interactions with others.

What’s in a handshake?

How we shake hands gives alot of information about us. We often make judgments based on what we experience even in a handshake and it influences our perception of the other person. Do you look the person in the eye when shaking hands? Do you have a strong grip? When someone turns your hand to face upwards in a handshake, their presentation is one of dominance. This is also true when they grip your hand tightly and powerfully. The handshake is absolutely of significance depending on the purpose of the meeting, the roles of the people meeting each other and the circumstances around the meeting. When the handshake is vertical with both parties shaking with equal pressure, the mood is set for a positive rapport.

During a handshake touching any other part of the body is considered too intimate unless you have an established relationship with them. The exception to this rule is however, a touch to the elbow, which is not considered to be an intimate part of the body. Having said that, different cultures have rituals and norms that govern the initial meeting which will influence your ability to read their body language. When considering meetings for business or networking, researching the people who will be present, cultural norms and managing your own behavior can help to guide the meet and greet in the right direction.

Positive hand signals

There’s no better hand signal than the thumbs up sign to signal something positive. It can also be cheezy depending on who, how, why and where the thumbs up signal is used. Our friend Borat is a master at awkward and inappropriate gestures that get him into trouble. Having awareness of appropriate signalling, timing and positive body language can absolutely help the interactions.

When we show our palms when talking it means we are being honest and telling the truth. When you talk using your hands and showing your palms, it influences others to tell the truth too.

When someone places their head on their open hands as if on a platter, they are signalling their admiration and respect for you. Some cultures use this type of signalling consistently and during greetings as a sign of respect. Be sure to mirror their respect with gestures that are respectful in return.

Rubbing hands together signals that the person is expecting something positive, with the speed of hand rubbing giving information about who will reap the benefit. It often signals excitement too, so this kind of gesture can set the tone in the room. Hopefully the expected positive event will come true and the person’s credibility is not tarnished.

Placing hands in a steepled gesture gives an air of authority and confidence. Depending on the situation, this can be either a good behavior or a bad one. Similarly, holding hands behind the back also shows an air of confidence. Pay attention to hand gestures and postures you might routinely see among people in leadership positions. These gestures impact how you feel about the person in addition to other pieces of information that helps to form your opinion.

Negative hand signals

We also know when certain hand signals are threatening or negative. With this in mind, it is never a good thing to use any of the hand signals that will elicit a negative response if you are hoping for a positive rapport. You might also want to think twice about dominating and hostile postures that will spill the beans on how and when you plan to take charge.

Hands held on the hips symbolizes a dominant posture. If the thumbs are tucked into pants pockets, this posture is one of aggression. You can probably guess that there is something bubbling underneath the exterior. Thumbs protruding from pants pockets show an air of superiority which is not often a welcome sign.

Pointing at someone is essentially an annoying gesture that can also be interpreted very negatively depending on the interaction and the disposition of the people involved. Finger pointing in a tense or negative conversation adds fuel to the fire and makes the situation worse. Situations that escalate out of control require managing before they get to the finger pointing stage. If the finger pointing has started, a time out followed by a mediation might be the only solution.

When hands are clenched the person is feeling anxious and negative and is holding back their emotions or a negative reaction. Similarly holding wrists behind your back is an attempt at self control in a negative situation. You might also see people squirming and eyes darting when they are trying their best to hide their disdain.

When you observe someone picking at their clothes, this can be a signal that they have an opinion about the situation or about you or someone else that they are keeping to themselves and are unwilling to share.

Body language influences

As with most issues related to human nature there are other influences that impact the interpretation and perception of some behaviors, so we can never say that we can read and interpret behaviors and body language with 100% accuracy.

Most commonly, gender differences will influence both interactions between the genders and those commonly used by each gender. When entering a room, women tend to use 27 distinct behaviors while men displayed only 12 distinct gestures.

Being mindful of body language behaviors unique to certain cultures is important too. For instance. The thumbs up sign in Latin America, West Africa, Greece, Russia and the south of Italy is an overtly offensive gesture that will elicit a very negative response. The peace sign with the back of the hand displayed in the British Isles, Ireland and Australia has a similar meaning. A summoning finger signifies “death” in Singapore and in the Phillippines, this gesture is how you might call a dog over, a sure sign of disrespect when directed towards another person.

Familiarity plays a role specifically related to the level of comfort between the people and the level of knowledge people have about each other. Touching and embracing increases between people that know each other making the interaction more personal and often more relaxed.

The setting where people interact influences behaviors also. In a formal setting, relaxed interactions are less likely such as in a professional setting or a work related interaction. Signs of affection or extremes of emotion are not considered appropriate in a formal setting either, so you may witness people controlling their behavior with gestures that hide their true thoughts and feelings.

Pay attention to body language next time you are in a crowd and perhaps use some of these tips to influence the interaction in a positive way.

Niamh van Meines is a nurse practitioner who blogs at Hospice Navigator.

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