Communication skills can help patients heal and co-workers grow, excel

By Gary Evans, PFCC Advisor

While watching a documentary on the famous Roosevelt family a few months ago, I was reminded of a quotation from Teddy Roosevelt that I like.  “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” 

In those relatively simple words, I believe a great truth exists. People listen and consider ideas once they believe that they are truly cared about and that their well-being in body and mind is being taken seriously.

Likewise, a statement attributed to The Buddha has had great impact on my life. “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.” The wisdom I read into this quotation is that before we provide important information, we need to create an understanding of why the information about to be given is important.

Together these two quotations are a reminder that in order to communicate it is exceedingly important to create an environment in which the other person knows we care about them and make them aware of why the information being shared is so important to them. Whether it is a student, a fellow employee or a patient, our interactions with them must take the uniqueness and humanity of the other person into account.

Almost all communication has one of three purposes: to describe, to interpret or to evaluate. In difficult situations, it is helpful to determine which of these is our goal, otherwise we can get sidetracked by the response and do or say things inconsistent with our goal. Our communication becomes reactive rather than proactive.

Descriptive communication serves to simply explain a situation, an event or perhaps a procedure. The goal is to describe something in as clear and caring a manner as possible. There is no interpretation or evaluation, but simple information passing.

Sometimes, the goal of the communication is to interpret what has happened or is going to happen to help clarify a decision or action. The parent who explains why we go to a special place in the house when there is a storm warning is engaging in this type of communication. Here’s another example: a physician has an elderly patient with a complex health history who is newly diagnosed with cancer. The physician recommends removal of the tumor, but nothing else. The physician could simply tell the patient and their family members that it won’t do any good, or they could say they fear the radiation and/or chemotherapy would do more to harm the patient and to heal them and explain why they believe that to be true. The latter makes the patient feel cared about, while the first example makes them feel dismissed.

Finally, communication can serve an evaluative purpose. When we are discussing health care plans with a number of outcomes available, evaluative communication makes a lot of sense. After the discussion, choices and decisions are made based on a thorough, evaluative process.

Unfortunately, when it is people we are evaluating in terms of how they live or how they act, we can expect that they may become defensive and even angry. Most of us feel the need to defend ourselves when we feel threatened or attacked whether that is the intent of the speaker or not.

Evaluative communication is most effective when it has a ‘problem focus,’ which looks at such factors as making sure the problem is clearly defined for all involved, discovering the cause of the problem and coming up with the best way to solve that problem. The focus is on problem resolution and not on blame. For instance, if a patient’s medication is not filled correctly, the natural inclination is to evaluate or judge the behavior of another – the physician, nurse, or pharmacy. Establishing blame becomes the goal of the interaction. We spend a day or two being upset with each other and hurt our relationships through word and sometimes worse, through deed.

When we go to the patient to explain the medication delay, we cannot take care of the matter by saying, “The problem has been taken care of; a pharmacy tech entered the order incorrectly.” The primary issue to the patient is getting his medication filled correctly.

When people care about each other and want to have a productive relationship, there are only two things to consider when problems occur: How are we going to handle it and how are we going to avoid having it happen again? Keeping score has very little value.

Hurting or embarrassing another through word or deed does not help them become persons with whom one wants to work. Rather, when we help others learn and grow, we create a better life for ourselves because we are interacting with people who feel good about themselves. Love and caring in interacting makes it possible for others to change and adapt while maintaining a sense of personal worth and dignity.

It will always be true that fear and intimidation bring obedience while only love brings real change. Change that comes through love and caring is much more permanent than that which comes through threat and intimidation. Caring, other-oriented communication can have an incredible impact on how effective we are in helping others to grow, excel and heal.


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