“I was listening for the pain. I kept listening for the pain.”
This was what a physician said during our debriefing after a role-play. She was the ‘attending,’ another physician played the ‘patient,’ and I was the observer. The role-play was a brief initial patient consultation.
During the debrief, we were focused on communication. The ‘attending’ was reflecting aloud about what she had been listening for during this role-play. Specifically, she told us she was listening for statements the ‘patient’ made about pain in his leg and foot.
That she was listening for the pain makes sense. Professionals are trained to notice, think, and speak in specialized ways.
How about you? When’s the last time you thought about the ways you listen, speak, think—even read and write—as a health professional?
Today, I’ll invite you to go through the first 2 steps in a process like the one this physician underwent in the role-play. These are steps you can take on your own. And they can help you notice some things we tend to take for granted that can get in the way of our professional communication.
Get a grip on your normal
We can tend to think of the ways we speak and listen as normal, natural, no big deal. As I’ve noted before, the words we use reveal our perspective on what linguist James Gee calls “being ‘normal,’ ‘acceptable,’ ‘right,’ ‘real,’ ‘the way things are,’ or ‘the ways things ought to be.’”
Another way of putting this is: we can’t help but speak from our own positions. We’re always pulling on the collective knowledge and experiences of our ‘cultures’ to inform our words and actions.
These are cultural norms that we may or may not be aware of. These ‘cultures’ can include those in our personal lives–as well as in our professional lives.
The body of research I’m drawing on deals with personal communication as well as professional communication. But from here on out, I’ll focus on professional communication.
Over the past few years, I have been able to interact with many people who are concerned about how they speak (and sometimes, how they listen) when it comes to health and healthcare.
This includes health professionals, patients, administrators, educators, and policy activists. The terminology is different. The focus of the conversations are different. The knowledge, assumptions, and motivations are different. Not only between these groups, but within them as well.
Professional norms and habits
Many of these differences in speaking and listening are a result of our participation in various communities. Yes, there’s our neighborhoods, and families, and multiple social groups. But again, here I’m focusing on our professional communities.
The process of earning a professional degree or certification is a significant socialization process. Professional education—even short workshops—are places where people learn to talk, think, read and write in ways that are necessarily specific to an area of expertise. You already know that different subject areas and disciplines use different terminology, phrasing, even different ways of researching. These is all part of their ‘normal’ way of constructing knowledge in their particular institutional or academic context.
As one nurse educator put it to me:
Because this is a different language. It’s very difficult for a student to come in and talk ‘urination.’ They’re used to saying ‘pee.’ And yet their patients aren’t going to say, ‘I urinated today.’ They’re going to say ‘I peed today.’”
(I explored this conversation further in a podcast which we call the pee-pee episode.)
Effective Patient Education Audiobook Bundle
This bundle of audiobook, eBook, and supplementary materials will help make your life easier. And it might change the way you think about patient education. No matter your specialization or patient population. You get practical, culturally and linguistically relevant advice and research-based tools, in an unfussy, conversational format.
Similarly, taking on a professional role also involves learning to write, read, and think in ways specific to your role (and industry, or sector). This includes talking with and listening to other members of your organization.
For example, how you talk and listen in a meeting is different to how you talk and listen at home. Professional jargon just wouldn’t feel right after hours.
It’s true for you and everyone you work with
Your listening and talking is shaped by the social groups of which you are a part. And so is everyone else’s.
This includes what we take for granted about the words we use, what we notice when we listen and read, what counts as worthwhile knowledge, and more.
Here’s an example. I’m in a wonderful writing group where we regularly read and comment on each other’s professional writing. In our meeting this week, a new member asked, “Who made the comment about policy and practice?” Before I could respond, other members answered, “Oh, that’s Anne Marie.”
Over years of working with me, they know that policy/practice relationships are something I notice. In a way similar to how the physician listens for the pain.
Policy/practice relationships are part of what I read for when I read. They’re part of what I listen for when someone speaks. They’re part of how I think. I learned this through my specific academic program. Other group members learned other ways of reading, noticing, listening, and talking through their programs and institutional experiences. So all our comments come from slightly different positions.
In a way, I am inviting you to take a trip down memory lane and think about your own professional learning. This is to help you consider what you might have come to take for granted about what matters, what gets talked about, what gets listened for, and more, in your professional communities.
Because these assumptions are different for different communities (professional and personal). This is part of what can make things tricky when we are interacting with other communities as part of our professional roles.
Said differently, this is about reflecting on:
- your own position,
- your own disciplinary or institutional experiences,
- the taken-for-granteds of people who do what you do,
…and how this might come into play in health communication. Any time you’re collaborating with, talking with, writing to, advocating for, or otherwise interacting with people who have different positions, communities, or backgrounds.
The first step involves taking a moment to be aware of how you listen and speak. The second is about possibly sharing this information with others, in order to help communication go more smoothly.
When you’re working together
To sum up: when it comes to professional communication, we’re all working within ways of talking, listening, reading and thinking that are specific to our disciplines and even our sectors.
What about when we’re working with someone(s) from another group, sector, profession, etc?
Being aware of our specific ways of talking, listening is important, but this alone may not be enough to help clear some communication hurdles. There may be times when it is appropriate, or helpful, for you to articulate your taken-for-granteds to someone else.
These times, of course, will vary by your situation and your role. But I’ll invite you to be on the lookout for them. One medical educator told me she’s seen–in hindsight–many opportunities where it might have been helpful to articulate her position, adding with a laugh:
I assume people understand the perspective I come from, the lens I’m using, my role. I make assumptions all the time!”
Though it may not always be the appropriate course of action, there are many possible scenarios where it would be helpful for you to explain your frame of reference to someone else. Otherwise known as those disciplinary or institutional norms we’ve been talking about.
Going full geek, you could call this metalanguage–more or less, language that pulls back the curtain and draws attention to our (hidden) thought processes. Remember, this is information your audience might not have.
Here are some phrases to get you going.
- “I see it as a big part of my job to know all about x (and its causes, side effects, treatment, etc.)”
- “Here’s where I’m coming from…”
- “I spend a lot of time reading and studying about x.”
- “I’m on the lookout for specific things regarding x.”
- “What I’m looking/listening for is…”
- “How I judge is like this…”
- “My criteria are these …”
Some may be more appropriate to your context than others. What’s important is that you develop one or two that work for you, and use them as often as you feel appropriate or helpful.
Whether it’s with patients or clients, colleagues across campus, or multi-sector partners, being able to articulate your position can help remove some obstacles to understanding and collaboration.