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Your body’s talking: moulding your body language into a confident you

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Want to be more confident in communicating with patients? It may be time to shut your mouth and open your eyes and armpits, says Carlson Coogler

There’s a lot of conventional wisdom about controlling your tongue:  “loose lips sink ships”,“the walls have ears”, and “if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all”. But, the tongue isn’t the only way we communicate.  The exact estimation varies, but experts agree that body language comprises a large part of what we actually say.

As a nurse, communication is essential.  Not only do patients need to listen to you, but you also need to show that you’re listening to patients and are in an empathetic state to receive the information  they are giving you.

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Judi James, author of many books on body language including Being Confident: Tips and Techniques to Help You Unlock Your Potential, believes that you can mould your body language so that you appear confident in caregiving, job interviews and dealing with your colleagues. But what are the secrets?

Being confident

 Even though “there’s absolutely no template” for confidence in body language, Ms James explains that such self-assurance usually presents itself in certain postures. 

“It’s about tension-free shoulders and arms, a relaxed facial expression with good but not constant eye contact, and good posture,” she says. 

Good posture means standing tall and relaxing the tension in your body.   

Confidence is also shown by a smile, “but it needs to be in the eye more than the mouth” because it tends to suggest that the joy you are expressing is more genuine.  

Interestingly, Ms James also says that “there is a link between the armpit and confidence,” especially in women.  “Under pressure, women tend to self-hug, meaning we keep our arms tight to our sides or fold them.”  Keeping your arms loose, then, shows confidence.

Being engaged

How you talk to a patient matters. 

It’ll be hard to stop and take a second to relax before you meet a patient when you have a million things to do, but first impressions are vital.  And, a quick pause may be all you need to give the right impression and make that interaction count.

“Pull up to full height, roll your shoulders back and down, breathe out slowly and relax your facial expression,” before you enter the room, says Ms James.  Not only will you make a more confident impression, it’ll also give you a second to relax.

After the first impression, one of the most important communication skills is the ability to show people that you are engaged and listening to what they are saying. 

Active listening requires “almost 100% eye contact, turning your torso and head toward the speaker, nodding and mirroring.”  Nodding should be at pace that is sympathetic to what you’re hearing:  slower for a problem, faster for something that is funny.    

Mirroring, which involves your body in a state that matches the person you are listening to, is also an important part of the strategy called “mirror – pace – lead” that Ms James recommends for encouraging someone to open up to you.

The technique starts in mirroring.  Shift your posture and eye contact so that it is more like theirs.

This creates “feelings of rapport,” and allows you to “‘lead’ their body language” from the common ground” that you have created into one that is “more relaxed and open.”  As your body language becomes more open, they will probably respond by becoming more open, too.

Becoming literate

The famous US actor Mae West once said that she spoke two languages: Body and English.  So, too, do you.    

It can be difficult to change your body language, but “nearly all our body language is learned or copied and there’s no law that says we should stop learning and stay with what we’ve got,” says Ms James.

So, if confidence in communication is your goal, remember these quick tips:

  1. Push your shoulders back. Opening up your chest can make you stand taller and lend you an air of confidence.
  2. Spread your weight evenly over both feet. Rather than leaning on one and then the other, a broad and unwavering even stance can convey confidence, self-assurance and control.
  3. Hold your hands loosely at your sides. Shoving your hands in your pockets or folding your arms in front of you might make people feel that you’re anxious or defensive. Instead holding a looser posture will show that you’re relaxed and open for feedback.
  4. Look them in the eye. Eye contact is a powerful tool, making eye contact with people can show that you’re not afraid of what they have to say.
  5. Tilt your head to one side. Do you want to show that you’re listening intently? By This is a good way of showing that you’re listening to someone, and you’re concentrating on what they’re saying.
  6. Silent encouragement. Using non-verbal encouragement like ‘ums’ and head nods can help to show a group that you’re engaged with what they’re saying.
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