It can be tricky talking to professionals who are outside our usual group. No matter your role in health, you may find yourself working in interdisciplinary or multisector teams. In this episode, you’ll learn 2 steps you can take–on your own–that can help you smooth out some bumps whenever you’re communicating with other health professionals. These two steps can help remove some obstacles to understanding and collaboration.
Over the past few years, I have interacted 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 care workers, patients, administrators, public health professionals, educators, researchers, and policy activists. 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? Not just with patients or clients, but with colleagues?
Today, I’ll invite you to go through 2 steps you can take on your own that can help you smooth out some bumps in professional communication.
You may have heard our big announcement! Over the years as I’ve been talking with health professionals about communication, I’ve been asked more than once: do you have an app? Now, the answer is YES! Health Communication Partners has an app! It lets you practice any strategic communication right in your phone. Communication support that goes along with you. I’m excited to share this with you so hit me up on Twitter or LinkedIn to learn more, or just visit Health Communication Partners.com and click on the banner!
I don’t have to tell you how vast and diverse the health sector is. And this diversity is reflected in professional communication. Across groups, terminology is different. The focus of conversations and research is different. The knowledge, assumptions, and purposes are different. Not only between groups in health and healthcare, but within them as well.
I’ve written, talked, broadcasted and workshopped before about how earning a professional degree or certification is a significant socialization process. Professional education—even short workshops—they 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. This is all part of their ‘normal’ way of constructing knowledge in their particular institutional or academic context. And it’s particular to that 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 another episode which we call the pee-pee episode. So I have a link to that in the notes.
Taking on a professional role also involves learning to write, and read, and think, in ways specific to your role, your industry, your sector, your specialization. This includes talking with and listening to other members of your group. For example, how you talk and listen in a meeting is different to how you talk and listen at home. 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 or important knowledge, and more.
Here’s an example. I’m in a phenomenal writing group where we regularly read and comment on each other’s professional writing. In our meeting recently, a new member to the group asked, “Who made the comment about policy and practice?” Before I could respond, other members said, “Oh, that’s Anne Marie.”
Because, over years of working with me, they know that policy/practice relationships are something I notice. 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. And I learned this through my specific academic program. Other group members learned other ways of reading, noticing, listening, and talking, through their programs and their institutional experiences. So all our comments come from slightly different positions which is part of what makes this group awesome.
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 a little differently, I’m inviting you to reflect on your own position, your own disciplinary or institutional experiences, the taken-for-granteds of people who do what you do, and how these might come into play in 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.
Those 2 steps I talked about? Here they are!
Step 1: what do you listen for when people talk? What do you notice when you read or scan something–-what are your looking for? As obvious as this is to you, go ahead and articulate it to yourself. One physician said that when patients speak, she was listening for the pain. She kept listening for the pain. Because the statements of pain were part of what she focused on in order to do her work. It was normal for her to focus on statements about pain.
Now that first step involves taking a moment to be aware of how you listen and speak. Step 2 is about those times when we’re working with someone from another group, department, sector, profession. Being aware of our own specific ways of talking, listening is important, but this alone may not be enough to help clear some communication hurdles.
So Step 2 is about possibly sharing the information from Step 1 with others, in order to help communication go more smoothly. That’s right; tell people what you just told yourself about what you listen for, notice, your usual m.o. 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, and she added 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. Going full geek for a moment, you could call this metalanguage–more or less, language that pulls back the curtain and draws attention to the connections between our words and our hidden thought processes. Remember, this is information your audience might not have.
How do you do this? How do you do this Step 2? Here are some phrases to get you going.
- “I see it as a big part of my job to know all about x”
- “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.
So 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. 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.
Image by Gerd Altmann