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How You Hold Your Face Makes a Big Difference

22 January 2016

Barbara read The Horse Sense of Nonverbal Communication in Lead Doc, the online journal of the American Association for Physician Leadership and was reminded that the sound of your voice, the look on your face, and the position of your body can enhance or ruin your words (for physicians and non-physicians alike).

Tags: barbara read, communication, leadership

Dr. Greg Hamilton, chief of neurosurgery and chairman of the Department of Surgery at the University of Arizona Health Sciences Center, teaches his residents good bedside manner by getting them comfortable around horses and more importantly getting the horses comfortable around the residents.

In The Horse Sense of Nonverbal Communication, Hamilton said the residents begin by “…learning how to do a physical exam on the horse. If a horse is ticklish, you’re a lot more leery about that than if a human being is ticklish. If you have to put a thermometer under a horse’s tail, you tend to do it with a great deal of respect.” According to Hamilton horses are ultra-sensitive to voice and body movements because they are prey animals and are always worried about what might try to kill them. So it’s crucial to move slowly and pay attention to what the horse needs.

Horses and people are more similar than you might think. Studies have shown how listeners respond to you when you are talking to them. The numbers are upsetting. An often quoted researcher at UCLA, Dr. Albert Mehrabian, concluded 7% depends on the words that come out of your mouth, 38% depends on your voice—the loudness, softness, pitch, tone—and 55% depends on what you are doing with your body.

Every now and then articles appear that debate these percentages, but when I teach communication programs, I slam my hand on the table, and say in a very loud voice, “I’m not angry,” to demonstrate my point. People flinch and think the numbers are close enough. My voice and body say I am furious even if my words claim I’m not. If words, voice, and body agree, you are sending a powerful message. If not, people always believe the message of your voice and body over your words.

Dr. Hamilton said patients who come to him have just been told by another physician they may have a brain tumor. “We have to focus not just on what we say but on what our bodies say. Things like looking people in the face, letting them finish their questions, trying to patiently explain a lab test and what it means, letting them see you’re willing to meet with their families instead of trying to avoid them because you realize that as soon as they go home everybody says, ‘What did the doctor say?’”

How you look and sound matter even when the subject is much less serious than a scary medical diagnosis. Has anyone ever told you, “It’s not what you said but how you said it?” Nonverbal communication, sometimes called body language, which includes the sound of your voice and the movements of your body, is a powerful part of communication.

I’ve coached people whose voices were too soft or too loud, and whose body movements were slumped over and wimpy or fast moving and aggressive. They’ve said, “That’s just the way I am.”

And I say, “No, that attitude won’t do. Your voice needs a flexible range much like a musical instrument. While the video camera runs, let’s practice going from soft and tender to strong and confident to firm and stern, but never arrogant. Your voice and body need to match your words.”

I was once told the resting position of my face was a bit grim. That’s fine when I’m working alone in my office, but when I go out in public, I pay attention to brightening up my face and lifting up the corners of my lips a bit. What body language quirks do you have that you might need to change?


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