The power of nonverbal communication

When meeting a dental patient, anxious and worried about the upcoming surgery, words might not be enough. Often, it’s not what you say but how you say something that has a bigger impact on boosting their mood and increasing their comfort level. It’s time to learn more about the power of nonverbal communication, and how words and body language combined can positively change your patient’s approach to the procedure.

Marie Gelang

Marie Gelang, senior lecturer in rhetoric at Örebro University in Sweden, has been researching body language and nonverbal communication and behavior since 2001. Earlier this year, she also got her first dental implant. So, there is no one better suited to help dental specialists instill patient confidence with their actions than she is. Here is Marie Gelang’s top dos and don’ts.

Speak with your eyes

Eye contact (respectful of culture) is possibly the most crucial component of non-verbal communication. Maintaining eye contact while speaking communicates confidence. Therefore, important conversations with patients should preferably take place in the practice, versus over the phone.
– My own research and other studies, like Adam Kendon’s Gesture: Visible Action as Utterance, show that eye contact gives an instant positive impact to a meeting. That extra minute you spend looking your patient in the eyes is well worth the effort, says Marie Gelang.

Smile with your heart

A welcoming smile is hard to reject. It projects openness, warmth and energy. In addition, a smile sets off positive impulses in the receiver, encouraging her or him to smile back, which can help calm anxiety.
– You want to create a trusting relationship with your patient and smiling is a great start. But, it must be genuine. A “fake” smile can be perceived as insincere or misleading. So remember, smile with your heart, Marie Gelang argues.

Meet face to face

Being reclined, especially lying in a dental chair while having the teeth examined, is an uncomfortable position and situation for many people. The patient often feel both exposed and vulnerable. Trying to have a meaningful conversation in this state is therefore less than ideal. Marie Gelang explains:
– A conversation should always take place face to face. That way you and your patient are at equal level, demonstrating that you fully respect their concerns. You see him or her as an individual, rather than a mouth with teeth that needs fixing.

Listen with compassion

All patients have their own unique concerns regarding dental visits. Some are quietly afraid while others will express their apprehensions out loud. Regardless who is in front of you – as a professional, it’s always preferable to act with compassion. And here, your body language is of great use and importance.
– Always aim to diffuse and calm a possible dramatic situation. Use your smile and eye contact, sit face-to-face on the same level, and listen. Listen with compassion. Your patient doesn’t want to talk with you if you turn your back to them or you’re humming behind a computer screen. Keep full attention on your patient with your body, eyes and ears.

Those are my advice for successful communication with your patient, Marie Gelang concludes.


Marie Gelang

Title: Senior Lecturer
School/office: School of Humanities, Education and Social Sciences, Örebro University, Sweden
Research Projects: ”Stance that trigger conflict escalation”, “Nonverbal behaviour as argumentation in election campaign interviews”, “Rhetorical actio: the power of body language”, “The visual rhetoric of store-window mannequins”.
Books: Mral, B., Gelang, M. & Bröms, E. (2016). “Kritisk retorikanalys: text, bild, actio” (Critic rhetorical analyzis: text, image, actio)