Interpreting body language 11

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The interpretation of body language, which differs between cultures, is a special study in its own right but there are certain cues and gestures that can be readily interpreted. Examples illustrated include the depressed patient (Fig. 4.7), barrier-type signals often used as a defensive mechanism to provide comfort or indicate a negative attitude (Figs 4.8 a,b,c) and a readiness gesture indicating a desire to terminate the communication (Fig. 4.9).

Fig. 4.7 Posture of a depressed person—head down, slumped, inanimate; position of desk and people correct

Barrier Signals Body Language
Fig. 4.8 Body language—barrier signals: (a) arms folded; (b) legs crossed; (c) 'ankle lock' pose
Fig. 4.9 Body language—'readiness to go' gestures

Having noted the non-verbal communication the doctor must then deal with it. This may require confrontation, that is, diplomatically bringing these cues to the patient's attention and exploring the associated feeling further.

It is not difficult to appreciate the importance of body language in the doctor-patient relationship. A hunch or gut feeling can be better understood, reinforced or corrected by skilled observation and interpretation of body language. A doctor can recognise a patient's non-verbal cues and explore the issues raised. By improving one's skills, and modifying one's behaviour (and consulting room configuration) the doctor can encourage communication and a better understanding of the patient. The skill to interpret non-verbal cues can be achieved by conscious observation of people's interaction, including our own. A technique suggested by Pease H is to watch television without sound for 15 minutes each day and check your interpretation each five minutes. By the end of three weeks, he suggests, you will have become a more skilled body language observer.

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