Workplace Communication

This is 2012: We’re all computer savvy and have automated systems in place in our hospitals. Why should we have to be concerned with the communication skills of our employees? We all know how to communicate; it’s just naturalright?

Wouldn’t it be nice if the above statements were true? Well, it just does not work that way.

  • The bad news: Not everyone is a naturalborn communicator.
  • The good news: Most can be taught to communicate effectively.

In the current healthcare environment, all employees, including respiratory therapists and sleep technologists, are expected to be fiscally wise and financially aware. We need to recognize that problems may occur and the “bottom line” can suffer when our employees are lacking in their ability to communicate effectively.

Managers and supervisors need to be aware that communication problems may result in some or all of the following:

  • Low staff morale with a high turnover rate
  • Patient complaints and a drop in patient satisfaction scores
  • Negative patient outcomes
  • Loss of revenue
  • Inability to compete in your market
  • Total business failure

Robert Kent, former Dean of the Harvard School of Business was known for the following quote:

“In business, communication is everything because it creates situations where managers spread best practice across segments and geographic regions and make decisions that enhance competitiveness”

The experts tell us that the typical employee spends 75-80 percent of their work time involved in some form of communication with others.

It is probably safe to say that most of us are aware that all animals communicate with each other in some manner. Take a look at your neighbor taking his dog on their evening walk around the block. This normally friendly pet will bark and raise his hackles should they encounter anyone that is perceived as being a threat either to him or his owner.

Human communication is a bit more complex and includes the following components: verbal, listening, written, and non-verbal or body language.

Verbal communication may be described as one person speaking directly to another person or to a group of people for the purpose of passing on information. It may be surprising to learn that verbal communication comprises 7 percent of our total communication efforts.

Listening is an important part of verbal communication. You may assume that hearing and listening are the same things when they are actually two entirely different processes: Hearing is a process of physiology when sound waves enter the ear where they are processed by the central nervous system, while listening is an active and sometimes selective process where we process the sounds that we hear. Active listening means that we are paying attention, processing the messages sent by the speaker and respond appropriately.

Good listeners may find that it is easier to create positive professional relationships. It is just natural that people feel more comfortable with those who are perceived as really listening to them.

Listening is the communication skill that we use more than any other; yet the average person receives very little training in how to be an effective listener. Think about this rather amazing fact: The average person speaks at a rate of 125 to 150 words per minute and is able to listen to and assimilate between 400 to 600 words per minute. The downside of this is that we have speaking speed and thinking speed and we are only using 25 percent of our mental capacity when we listen to someone speaking normally.

It is important to focus and concentrate on what we are hearing. We may also use interactive listening techniques, such as asking pertinent questions that will help clarify what the speaker is trying to convey.

Body language allows us to convey information to others without the use of the spoken word and it makes up approximately 93 percent of our total communication efforts. It may be silent, but it can certainly speak with a very loud voice. The following items are components of body language: posture, appearance, eye contact, gestures, and facial expressions.

We need to be aware of the barriers that may compromise, hinder or even block our efforts to communicate with others.

  • The words used. Are they appropriate for the listeners?
  • Our tone of voice. How many times did we hear a parent say, “It’s not what you said. It’s the way that you said it?”
  • Emotions: anger, know it all attitude, frustration.
  • Background noises from people talking, radios and/or music playing and laboratory instruments running.
  • Ambient or room temperature set too high or too low.
  • Room light: too bright or too low.

There are some things that we can all do to avoid building barriers.

  • Do not hold a conversation competition.
  • When speaking; avoid preaching or moralizing.
  • Do not sit in judgment on your coworkers’ opinions.
  • Avoid saying “me too.” Really listen to the speaker.
  • Do not interrupt, argue or over-analyze the conversation.
  • Try to defuse any anger and never respond to anger with anger.
  • Never pretend to know what you do not know. Ask for help.

One last word of advice: Do not be an ostrich and hide your head in the sand. Communication problems exist in most workplaces.

Take ownership and deal with your problems! They never go away on their own. Consider taking the following steps:

  • Be realistic and acknowledge that problems may exist.
  • Identify problems in each area of the department.
  • Know your employees and how they relate to the problems.
  • Consider forming self directed work teams.
  • Eliminate any obfuscation. Obfuscation (or beclouding) is the hiding of the intended meaning in communication creating confusion, ambiguity, and making reactions more difficult to interpret.

Psychologist Sanya Friedman, former host of the CNN program, Sonya Live, said, “Recognizing a problem is the first step to solving it. Some problems cannot be solved but you can make peace with them.”

Communication is simple, yet complex. It is easy to do, but not always effective. When we learn how to communicate effectively in our workplaces, we will also build trust, encourage learning and achieve both our personal and business goals.

Helen C. Ogden-Grable is a consultant, Creative Phlebotomy & Laboratory Solutions, Naples, FL.

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