Emotion always comes into interpersonal communication. This episode focuses on the emotional impact you want your words to have when you’re communicating with a patient or client–and the words and phrases you’re using to make it happen. You’ll learn 3 questions that’ll help you dig into the how and why of your affective communication.
You’ve heard me say before that communication is more than a simple transfer of information.
In the patient encounter, you are communicating information, to be sure. You have a goal in mind. But you are not merely giving an objective report. Emotion always comes into interpersonal communication.
You want your words to have an impact. I want to give you tools to help.
This episode focuses on the emotional impact you want your words to have when you’re communicating with a patient or client, and how you’re recruiting language to make it happen.
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We do things with language. We build things. We try to make things happen. Like encourage or discourage a particular emotion in someone else. Here’s some research.
One study finds that physicians’ “reassurance about non-abandonment can reduce patients’ physiological arousal and increase information recall in bad news consultations.” Another study found that pediatricians’ empathetic communication was “able to attenuate parents’ stress response during the medical interview” and represent “a source of social and emotional support.”
For another example, significant research attention has been paid, for more than a decade now, to the emotional impact of different metaphorical messages regarding cancer. War imagery has long dominated the figurative landscape around cancer. But, as powerful as battle imagery is, the emotional impact of this language on patients is not always the one providers and public health professionals hope for. So overall, in health communication research, there’s agreement that affective communication is important, even though direct links to patient outcomes are hard to come by.
So let’s break this down a little. There are those times you are explicitly planning to elicit an emotion in your patient, regarding their health condition. Borrowing some ancient tools, let’s take a closer look at emotion. One of my earliest podcast episodes was about how some terms from classical rhetoric could be helpful as a quick and easy way to assess your communication. I’m going back to that well again. I’ll use the term pathos to talk about emotions in words.
Classical scholar Richard Lanham defines the Greek rhetorical term pathos as referring to both 1) emotions themselves, and 2) to the techniques for eliciting them. Following his lead, First I’m going to help you dig into your thinking about the emotions you’re trying to elicit. Then, how you’re eliciting them through your words. How am I gonna do this? I’m doing this through a series of 3 questions so you can evaluate your own language.
- What emotion are you hoping to elicit?
Be clear with yourself about what you are trying to make happen. What is the emotion that you’re hoping you can lead someone to feel? What are your expectations?
As I have read across multiple studies of emotion and health communication, I have noted the express or implied emotional impact that the speakers (or researchers) were hoping to have. Here are some examples, to get you thinking about the emotional effects you might be going for. To:
- Create sense of urgency
- Reduce distress
- Increase a sense of empowerment
- Calm fears
- Pique curiosity
- Give hope
Let’s make this even more concrete. For the rest of this episode I’m going to use an example from the first study I mentioned earlier, on affective communication in “bad news consultations.” The implied emotional impact in this study was the lowering of patients’ anxiety. That was it seems they were going for.
Identifying the emotion you’re going for can sometimes be tricky sometimes, so be patient with yourself. It’s important for me to mention that I am understanding that you are also trying to build trust and positive relationships—this is the ethos, right–by speaking ethically and maintaining your professional duties. So that’s a given.
Don’t be vague about your expectations about the emotion you are trying to elicit. Even answering this one question alone can help you gain control over your communication. Now we’re going to go a step further.
- Why are you hoping for this emotion?
You hope a patient will feel a certain emotion for a reason. What is that reason? Arguably, you’re hoping to connect a patients’ emotion to something about their condition. And you do this through your talk. So get nice and clear with yourself on the links you are assuming between the patients’ experience of this emotion and some positive health outcome. Because this guides your language.
That earlier study was concerned with lowering of anxiety. What was their reason? Why did they want to lower patients’ anxiety? They were hoping to aid patients in recalling information.
Through a chain of prior research, the authors explained how they connected physiological arousal and recall of provided information. The lower the physiological arousal, the better the recall. Recall being important, the study was set up to test this hypothesis.
Go ahead and articulate to yourself what you assume about the connections between the emotion and the positive health outcome. Be alert for what could get in the way!
- How does your language measure up?
I’m encouraging you to evaluate your own language – against your answers to those two questions. So there’s actually a few more questions embedded in this one. You’re well aware that you are having an emotional impact on your patient simply by your presence. How you enter a room, your body language, your tone of voice and facial expressions, how close you sit. All of this counts. But we’re focusing on your verbal communication.
What terms are you using to elicit the emotion? Are you saying what you mean to be saying?
Staying with the earlier example, the study authors designed phrases they thought would have the desired effect of lowering anxiety. These phrases included:
“‘But whatever action we do take, and however that develops, we will continue to take good care of you. We will be with you all the way.’ ‘We will do and will continue to do our very best for you.’’’
What do you say to your patients? what effects do your words have on them? For instance, it’s not hard to imagine how the phrases I just mentioned from that study could have a calming effect. But you still have to pay attention to what happens in reality.
I’m grateful to a reader of h-cpartners.com who on reading these, pointed out that–as nice as these phrases sound–they could still have the effect of reifying the power imbalance between provider and patient. For instance, the “we” of the providers seems to be contrasted with the “you” of the patient, as this reader pointed out. And I’m grateful for that.
What do you say in order to elicit the emotion you’re hoping for? What actual words and phrases do you use?
As I’ve said before, it will be helpful if you have a recording of yourself actually talking. Maybe you can audio record; maybe take the first chance you get to write down everything you can remember saying. But if you really want to take it pro, you will get serious and find a way to record your actual speech, even in a simulated encounter.
This is about being aware of what you’re assuming–and unpacking your language–when you are seeking to elicit an emotion. Be upfront with yourself about the emotional impact you’re going for. Know what connections you’re assuming between this emotion and a positive health outcome. And listen to your actual words, noticing the effects they have.
Finally, recognize that people will have different responses than the one you have in mind. The same person might even have different responses to the same message, over time. So don’t be worried about finding that one message, or magic phrase, that works all the time. Sure, have your go-to phrases. But have a couple others ready to go as well. Perhaps ask your colleagues what they do to improve their affective communication. Want more help? Write me! Go to health communication partners dot com and click contact. Or just reply to any of our newsletters – they come right to me.
This has Been Ten Minutes To Better Patient Communication, from Health Communication Partners. I’m Dr. Anne Marie Liebel.