Being able to communicate – with colleagues, patients, and their family – is an essential skill for any health professional. You may even have chosen this career because you enjoy that level of personal interaction. Others may find communication the most stressful part of the job.
Whichever camp you fall into, giving your communication skills a tune-up is a great idea – especially when you could be making the same mistakes over and over again.
Why communication matters
Lloyd Allen, Advanced Communication Skills lecturer practitioner at The Royal Marsden School, believes communication is crucial at any level in healthcare. ‘You can be a good medic, you have to – potentially – be a good scientist, you want to be technically proficient as a nurse or clinician, but fundamentally you are working with patients. And to work with patients you have to learn how to communicate with them,’ he says.
Around 50% of the complaints the NHS receives from patients are related to how they felt about how they were communicated with, and whether that communication was carried out in a sensitive or effective way. The statistic is high, so what’s going on? It could be that many of us unknowingly keep making the same communication mistakes.
Fundamentally you are working with patients. And to work with patients you have to learn how to communicate with them.
Three common communication mistakes
‘These mistakes are often things people are not aware that they do in conversations, which disable them from the very beginning,’ says Lloyd. So what are the three most common communication traps we can all fall into?
1. We’re not actually listening
‘You might set out with an agenda, or an idea of what the patient wants before checking out that it is what they want,’ says Lloyd. By going into a conversation with a ready-made impression of the situation, you’re not actually listening to what’s worrying them.
Lloyd says, ‘It’s important to find out what they already know and what they want from the very start. Talk to them to understand where they’re coming from and what their concerns are.’ Once they have told you, check back with the patient that you have heard what they say and acknowledge their feelings.
‘This is often enough to build trust in you as a health professional,’ says Lloyd.
2. We become solution-focused
Giving a patient bad news – whether that’s a diagnosis or treatment related – is one of the most challenging conversations you can have. But you need to give them time to react to that news. ‘If they become very upset, or angry, or start asking a lot of questions, we can feel as though we have to solve their problem. So rather than listening to them, we rush through to talking about treatment,’ says Lloyd.
Try not to go into ‘fix it’ mode straight away. Instead of speeding through the conversation in a bid to avoid making the situation feel worse, you need to stop, listen to their fears and make them feel validated. ‘Even if you don’t agree with their perspective, it is their perspective so it’s essential,’ says LLoyd. ‘How we talk to patients is just as important as the treatment we give them.’
3. We don’t practice empathy
Even if you’re not naturally skilled in this area, you can still learn to practice empathy effectively while talking to patients. ‘If they’re getting upset, or you can see something is difficult for them, tell them you get it. Say “I can see you’re very upset” or “I know this isn’t easy for you”,’ says Lloyd.
Research shows that empathy has a positive cognitive impact on a person’s emotional state – if it's delivered in the right way, empathy appears to lower their distress. So give your patient time to get their head around what you’re saying. Once you’ve slowed the conversation down, they should be more receptive to talking about moving things forward.
Lloyd says, ‘Again, find out what they need. You could ask, “What would be most useful for you right now? I’ve given you a lot of information, so would you like me to go over anything or give you some information to take away?” This puts the patient back in control of the conversation and includes them in the decision-making process, instead of you leading them to the solution you want.’
How to improve your communication skills
The Advanced Communication Skills Training course offered by The Royal Marsden School is a two-day course for healthcare professionals. It’s based around interactive workshops and role play, providing a safe environment for you to practice and develop communication techniques.
You can work through situations you may have experienced in practice, so you get the chance to identify any challenging situations, then take home some specific ideas on how to manage them in future.
‘Evidence shows that our course improves communication skills in a clinically relevant way,’ says Lloyd. ‘Whatever you learn will stand you in good stead in your job.’