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Counterproductive signs

Oct. 1, 2010
Even with a friendly smile, body language sends the wrong message

Even with a friendly smile, body language sends the wrong message

by Janice Hurley-Trailor

Rarely have I met a hygienist who did not want to effectively communicate with patients. If intent were the measure of success, most of the readers of RDH would score high, but alas, that is not the scoring system. How can you tell if you are communicating effectively? You'll know by how your patients respond to you:
  • Do they share important information about their dental habits and health?
  • Do they remember what you told them?
  • Do they talk and do you listen?
Counterproductive communication means our body and facial expressions say one thing and our words say another. In the game of poker, a full house tops a flush. In communication, body language tops anything you say. If your words say one thing but your body language says another, your patients will inadvertently "hear" your body language.

For example, you ask your patient at the beginning of the appointment to talk about home care and changes in health or medications, and you genuinely want to know. But does your patient really feel your true interest? Here's how to be sure you're communicating effectively.

Start by giving yourself permission to relax and be present. Read that sentence again. Picture what relaxation might really feel like. Imagine that during your busy day, there could be a time and place to truly relax. Ahhh! Doesn't that feel good?

You are allowing yourself this time to be present because you prepared for this moment by reviewing your patient's clinical notes. You know all of these details:

  • When your patient was last seen
  • What work was done during his or her last visit
  • Whether there is any unfinished treatment
  • When the most recent X-rays were taken
  • What comfort features he or she prefers
  • The purpose of today's appointment

That's why you are able to relax, because you did the prep work. Now your job is to take a moment to mentally and physically relax. When you relax, your patient can relax also – and you know how important that is to a dental patient. As you sit down and make eye contact, if you are relaxed you can truly listen, and not just to the words you hear. You can also read your patient's face and body language to understand the true emotions behind the words.

Your face shows your emotions, and your body shows how you are dealing with these emotions. The same thing applies to your patients. Know that sometimes patients say one thing while their bodies illustrate other emotions. Trust body language. Trust facial expressions. Before you start your conversation, take a breath and give that moment some quiet rest. Smile. Let your body relax, let your mind be at peace, and give yourself permission to receive patients' emotions instead of pressuring yourself to give out energy or information.

Your patients can read your emotions if you're feeling pressured and busy. While it's true that there is much to accomplish in each and every appointment, if you carry around that heavy load of constant pressure, you will unintentionally sacrifice optimal trust and bonding with your patient. Just a brief moment to relax and be present can save so much time later.

You don't want to multitask when your patient arrives in your room. So before you meet with someone, figure out everything that can be done beforehand. Place your chair at the optimal height – eye level with your patient. If your office still uses patient charts, then review the chart, but leave it in your exam room, don't take it with you to the reception area. Leave your gloves and mask behind as well.

Remember that your body language speaks louder than your words. If your words say, "Welcome! It's good to see you!" but your mind is thinking about all you have to do, then your patient will know you are not really present. Anyone can sense your dual focus. If your mind is thinking about instruments to prepare, care calls to make, and X-rays to take, your body language will give you away.

Before you dismiss this observation as applying to someone else, try this: set up a video camera so it tapes you at eye level with your patient during the appointment. Then watch the video and take note of how many times you do the following:

  • Speak to your patient before making eye contact.
  • Ask a question while you are still moving any part of your body.
  • Don't line yourself up toward your patient as you request information.
  • Are not at eye level with your patient during a conversation.
  • Interrupt your patient.
  • Talk about yourself.
  • Are not serene in your energy and self-acceptance.
  • Finish your patient's sentence.
  • Ask a question you should have been able to answer, such as, "Did we take X-rays at your last visit?"
  • Shake your head back and forth as you ask, "Do you have any questions?"
  • Nod your head up and down too quickly, or more than once or twice while you are listening.

Counterproductive communication like this confuses patients and frustrates hygienists' efforts to educate and motivate them. As an effective communicator, you will be much less concerned about what to say, and more concerned about how to say it. You know that good intent has to be combined with good science, and that the science of body language says your face will show your feelings and your body will show how you are dealing with those feelings.

If you bring patients back to your room while you're thinking about your last patient, or how you're running late, or how instruments are piling up, or what a struggle it is to learn the new software, I promise that your patients will know. They can tell when you ask questions without being totally present, or when you go through the motions of another repetitive question for the day. They always know.

When you're fully prepared and beautifully present, they know that, too.

Give yourself the gift of being completely present to everything your patients say, both verbally and nonverbally. You won't have to worry about their questions because you know the answers! You can rest in the knowledge that you're the expert. Just let your preparation and body language show how informed and involved you are, and I promise you, your patients will communicate effectively with you.

Janice Hurley-Trailor, BS, is a Dentistry's Image Expert. Contact her at

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