Nonverbal Communication

You can’t not communicate! In healthcare we often focus on verbal communication, that is, how we exchange information using words. Yet even when silent, we are still communicating. Think about the doctor who stands up when the patient enters the room and greets them with a warm, welcoming smile versus the clinician who stays sitting behind the desk looking at the patient’s notes.

Nonverbal behaviours include well known skills like eye contact, facial expression, body language and how fast or slow we speak. Consider also less familiar nonverbal skills like our appearance, furniture placement, and the cleanliness of our environment. When we are more aware of nonverbal cues, they can help us to understand what other people are communicating and we can use these cues to ensure that our own messages are clear.

Our nonverbal communication

People watch and interpret our facial expression, our gestures, the way we present ourselves, and everything in between. Our verbal messages become more meaningful and trustworthy if they are accompanied by matching nonverbal behaviours. Nonverbal skills help us to communicate emotions and provide emotional support. Thus, they have a very important role in helping to build rapport and trust with patients and their loved ones.

The patient’s nonverbal communication

Nonverbal communication is a two-way street. Patients reflect different emotions using body language. Being alert to the patient’s nonverbal cues enables you to probe a little deeper, rather than simply accepting verbal responses at face value. Use caution when interpreting nonverbal communication or relying on it as your sole source of information. It is important to triangulate information from different sources to form a full picture. A patient with their arms folded may not agree with what you have said or they may just be cold!.

A word on culture

Nonverbal communication can vary from country to country and also among different cultures. The main cultural differences in nonverbal communication occur within the categories of eye contact, personal space and touch.

Skills card

Nonverbal communication (PDF, 413 KB, 20 pages)


Nonverbal communication (vocal expression)

Nonverbal communication (facial expression)


Nonverbal communication (PDF, 3.6 MB, 1 page)