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Body Language Basics

By Anthony Blackman

Continuing our series of articles about communication skills, in part 4 we look at the importance of body language.

Body language is non-verbal communication made up of our posture, positioning, and gestures. Often these can be subconscious and can reveal how we really feel, even if the words we say suggest otherwise. Although there are entire books devoted to reading body language, here I will summarise the key areas of interest.

Eye contact and smile

The two most important things you should do when anyone enters the practice. Even if you are busy with another patient, you can still acknowledge the presence of the next patient by making eye contact and smiling.

Doing both things not only puts the person at ease, as their presence has been acknowledged, but it also gives a good first impression. So, make sure that you look directly at patients when you are talking to them and smile as a greeting, or to reassure them.


The positioning of your body (‘stance’) is very important because it can be noticed from several metres away and is very obvious.

To convey a positive image you should be fully facing the person to show that you are giving them your full attention. Also, you should make sure that your posture is open, so your arms and legs are uncrossed, with hands on show and not in your pockets. You should also be upright, with shoulders back and head upright, rather than sloughed forward.

So make sure that you are facing patients when talking to them and sit with good posture. This will not only be good for your back, but it will also make you look more confident and professional.




We are usually very expressive with our arms when we are comfortable and confident and move them about as we talk. However, when we feel uncomfortable, we are likely to keep them still and either put our hands in our pockets or cross our arms, which gives a signal of being closed, uncomfortable, or unapproachable.


We use our hands a lot to communicate in the form of gestures. The placing of the palm is also important. Having your palm open and on display shows that you are open, honest, and approachable. This is a sign of open body language and is a positive signal to patients.

However, if your palms are hidden or closed, then this is closed body language which is a negative sign to patients. So, try not to hide your hands when speaking e.g. in your pockets or under the desk.

Barrier – Hands can be used to create a barrier by holding them up or holding objects in front of yourself. Usually when you are feeling uncomfortable in a situation.

Clenched fist – When you are angry

Thumbs up – Positive, approving, and in agreement

Thumbs down – Negative, disapproving, and not in agreement

Index finger to thumb – In many countries, this symbol means ‘OK’ in agreement. However, in Japan it means money. In France it means zero. Brazil considereds it to be offensive.

Wagging of a finger – A warning to stop or not do something



As with arms, if legs are crossed then it is a sign of ‘closed’ body language, which gives a negative signal. You should however be aware of not having your legs too far apart, being wider than 12 inches/30cms can make your stance seem aggressive or over assertive. 6-8inches is a typical distance when someone is comfortable.

When sitting again be aware of not crossing your legs, keeping your knees 6-8inches apart, and have them fully facing the person you are speaking to.

Personal Space

Being aware of personal space is very important on optics, as we will often invade someone’s personal space to carry out part of the eye examination, or to check the fitting of their frames.

The better we know someone, the closer we will be able to get without making them feel uncomfortable. When helping someone to choose frames, we will probably be in the social space, but when it comes to the dispense, we will be sitting closer and within the personal space.

Make sure that you gain patient consent before you enter their intimate space e.g. to look behind their ears or when carrying out procedures such as everting their eyelids.

Personal space

The final part of our quick tour of body language is ‘Active Listening’. This is where you must put in the effort to demonstrate to patients that you are listening to them.

This includes making certain gestures that the patient will subconsciously be pickup on.

  • Nodding in agreement when they are speaking
  • Making eye contact (but not 100% of the time)
  • Avoiding distractions while they speak
  • Making verbal cues to agree
  • Your head slightly tilted to one side
  • Having your palms open and not fidgeting
  • Not talking util they have finished
  • Being aware of the patient’s body language and reacting to it

Most body language is subconscious and uncontrolled i.e. we adopt it without even thinking about it. It is therefore good to check on how you present yourself and think about the signals you are giving off.

If you notice something, then you can adjust yourself to be a better non-verbal communicator.

In the fifth part of the Communication Series, Anthony will discuss how to break bad news to patients.

Anthony Blackman MSc BSc(Hons) FBDO is founder and Director of Training at Insight Optical Training, a specialist training company that offers a range of courses, qualifications, short-courses, online modules, and CET/CPD. He can be contacted via [email protected]


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