Whether it is with patients, fellow healthcare professionals, or in your personal life, communication is one of the most important skills we can learn. There are many layers to being a great communicator, but as with most things, the most critical step is stopping to take time to notice how you communicate and the outcomes you are getting.
How you listen. The best communicators are first, and foremost, great listeners. They bring focus and attention to the other person or to the group. They choose to be present to the conversation and avoid falling into the trap of multitasking or allowing distractions to hijack them. While we may like to think we can do many things at once, science proves that we do not do that well. In an article from the American Psychological Association, it states that studies show, “Doing more than one task at a time, especially more than one complex task, takes a toll on productivity.”1
Tip: Experiment for a day. See what happens when you commit to giving your full attention to each conversation. It may require some self-discipline such as putting your phone aside. It may require gently educating others around you who may be used to interrupting you. What you will find, over time, is that as they begin to experience having all your attention when they speak to you, they will appreciate this approach and will be more thoughtful before interrupting.
Obviously, in healthcare, there are times when interruption is necessary because of an urgent or life threatening situation. However, during other times when you focus on one conversation at a time, you will find that your patients feel like someone is really listening and present for them. This will improve patient satisfaction. You will also find your fellow healthcare providers feel more supported and you will be more productive instead of feeling like you’re being pulled in different directions and unable to complete any one thing.
What you say. My mother used to say, “Mind your P’s and Q’s.” While it actually means to remember to say please and thank you, it also embodies the notion of being mindful of what you say. It is critical to keep in mind we all have different experiences, beliefs, preferences, and backgrounds.
Tip: We are not expected to know everything. Be transparent if you need to be educated about someone’s cultural, preference, or beliefs in order to communicate better and meet their needs. Most people would rather you inquire instead of assume.
How you say it. Your tone of voice can quickly change the meaning of the words you use. Be especially wary of sarcasm. It can be a very passive-aggressive form of communication that leads to misunderstandings and hurt feelings. “I was just kidding” shows a complete lack of responsibility and professionalism. If you don’t mean it, don’t say it.
Tip: None of us are perfect. If you say something that comes out in a tone that doesn’t reflect your values or the compassion you typically serve with, then take responsibility for it and apologize. It only takes a minute to go back and say something like, “Just a few moments ago when I spoke, I don’t feel like it came out as I intended. I’m sorry if that sounded frustrated/angry/upset. What I meant for you to hear was that I am concerned/confused/unclear.”
Who you say it to. Keep your conversation appropriate for everyone who is in hearing distance. Be particularly mindful if children are present. Even if they don’t appear to be paying attention, they usually are especially during situations where a family member or they, themselves, are going through a medical challenge. Also, be mindful that if you have an issue with someone, you take it to that person instead of a third party. Unless you’re getting coaching on how to approach the individual, you’re just gossiping and wasting time and energy.
Tip: Think of your conversations like a carbon footprint. A carbon footprint measures the ecological impact of our actions. Think about the kind of impact the words that are coming out of your mouth will have on others.
Practicing mindfulness in these four areas can improve your relationships and help you avoid misunderstandings and miscommunication with patients, family members, and coworkers.
- American Psychological Association. Multitasking: Switching costs. 2006 Mar 20.