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Nursing & nonverbal communication

Updated July 19, 2017

Listening to a patient is important to understanding a patient, but patients also communicate nonverbally. Oftentimes a health care provider will learn more from observing a patient's nonverbal cues than from listening to a patient's verbal communication. Understanding nonverbal communication is especially important for nurses providing care to patients with limited language skills.

Modes of Nonverbal Communication

Nonverbal communication or body language includes physical appearance, physical distance between caregiver and patient, tone of voice, and facial expressions. Understanding nonverbal messages is a valuable caregiving skill because body language is usually a more reliable indicator of a patient's condition than his verbal responses. Utilise nonverbal communication skills by observing the patient's manner of dress, manner of speech and reactions to being touched during examination.

Significance of Facial Expressions

Gestures, nods, smiles, grimaces and frowns are facial expressions that you must interpret when communicating with a patient. The ability to interpret facial expressions leads to a better understanding of your patient's condition.

Use of Space

You must provide treatment and care that often requires close personal contact. Remember that you are invading the patient's personal space as you examine him. Different patients will have different zones of comfort. Determine you patient's personal comfort zone. Be respectful and ensure that the patient is comfortable with any procedures that you will perform. Be especially careful when conducting examinations of individuals with schizophrenia or other psychiatric illnesses. These individuals may become anxious and violent as the nurse invades their comfort zone while examining them.

Other Elements of Nonverbal Communication

The patient can communicate using silence, gestures, eye movement, posture and vocal cues. Vocal cues refer to pauses, loudness and tone of speaking voice, which can indicate a range or emotions from anger to nervousness. The nurse interprets behaviour such as fidgeting, clenching fists, avoidance of eye contact or physical contact and responds to the nonverbal message.

Using Body Language

The nurse must explore further if the patient's nonverbal message does not match his verbal message. Verbal and nonverbal messages should match in both the patient and the caregiver. If an individual's body language doesn't match his spoken message, the recipient of the message will be confused.

Caregiver's Body Language

Smiling, leaning forward, eye-gazing and touching are elements of body language that the nurse can use to improve her relationship with the patient. Be aware that your body language communicates messages to your patient and ensure that you are respectful and considerate in speech and movement. Use your body language to communicate effectively with the patient and her family.

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About the Author

Miriam Breeze, a freelance writer since 2009, is a 12-year Marine Corps veteran and was a merchant mariner for five years. She specializes in health care topics and has published articles on eHow.com and Answerbag.com. She has a Bachelor of Science in nursing from National University and a California registered nursing license.