How good are your communication skills?

As nurse leaders, we must communicate effectively on the first try. We don’t want our staff members asking themselves, “What did she say?”

When I started my first nursing leadership role, my dad gave me a little gift for my new office — a small desk sign with a message that read: “I know you believe you understand what you think I said, but I am not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant.”

Over the years, some staff members would read it and smile as if trying to decide if it was supposed to be confusing, funny or both, while others would comment on its message. As I moved the sign from desk to desk and job to job throughout my career, it served as a reminder of my dad and the importance of good communication skills, especially in healthcare, where what is meant, how it’s said and how it’s heard can have a big impact.

Good communication isn’t simply moving information through an organization; it can mean the difference between life and death. It’s at the heart of making correct assignments and rendering the best care, and it plays a vital role in the quality of everything we do.

It’s an important factor in patient and family education; it helps prevent errors and ensure safe handoffs. And in life and death situations, effective communication is crucial.

When it’s successful, good communication improves teamwork and helps increase patient, staff and family satisfaction. It even colors how the community views a facility.

Good communication 1-2-3

We’ve all seen job descriptions that say, “Good written and verbal skills required.” But what does this mean?

Having legible handwriting, being good spellers or knowing how to structure sentences? Does it mean having a clear, resonant speaking voice or a strong command of the English language? These skills are important, but they don’t ensure good communication.

You need three things for good communication:

  1. Message clarity — Whether verbal or written, the message needs to be clear and unambiguous.
  2. Reliable means of communication — Are certain messages best digested by staff if you speak to them directly or should you disseminate a memo? What means of communication increases the chances the message is not going to be misunderstood or taken out of context?
  3. Proof your message was understood — How do you know your message was clear? If the recipients understand the message, they can repeat back to you what you said. Check with them to find out, and if there’s a miscommunication, try again.

Communication failures and fixes

“What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate,” is a quote from the 1967 film “Cool Hand Luke,” starring Paul Newman. The communication problem in this movie was bad enough, but the consequences of poor communication in healthcare can be catastrophic.

Research has shown ineffective communication has been the cause of everything from delays to patient deaths.

A 2016 study revealed hospitals and physicians’ offices nationwide might have prevented nearly 2,000 patient deaths and $1.7 billion in malpractice costs if medical staff and patients had communicated better.

None of us is perfect, and statistics like these remind us we need to keep working at it.

Keep these questions in mind to help you gauge whether your communication methods — or those of other leaders or departments — can use some improvement.

  • When a medication error, patient accident, sentinel event or failure to rescue occurs, do you check to see if unclear orders or incomplete information were to blame?
  • When you send out a memo, do you think you’re done, or do you follow up to see if it was understood by each recipient?
  • If you’re using more emails, flyers and memos than face-to-face meetings for your communications, is this because you have found these are the most effective ways to communicate with staff or is it simply because they’re faster — and you’re pressed for time?
  • If you make announcements and learn later that some staff didn’t hear them, do you find out how that happened and how to avoid that problem in the future?
  • What do you do if you suspect staff members are uncomfortable telling you they didn’t understand a communication?
  • What should you do if your meetings aren’t as interactive and productive as you’d like, and if staff members’ body language and other subtle cues are telling you they’re not on board?

If you’re willing to answer these questions honestly and take some corrective action, you’re already on your way to better communication. Here are some tips that may help, as well.

7 tips for better communication

  1. When you have a message to send, think carefully about whether it will be more effective in writing or in a face-to-face meeting.
  2. When the message is urgent, say so and tell why.
  3. Choose your words carefully, focusing on the salient points and why they matter — but don’t over explain them.
  4. State your goals clearly and emphasize what you need and expect.
  5. Use words that promote interest, buy-in and participation.
  6. Don’t sacrifice clarity for brevity.
  7. Decide how you’ll ensure your message was received, understood and accepted. Should you make time for Q&A or, perhaps, ask staff members direct questions about your message?

Just as that little gift from my dad always reminded me, communication is at the core of what we do as nurse leaders. Drop the ball and your staff can lose confidence in themselves and in you. Do it well and you can avoid crisis after crisis and take your staff to new heights in patient care and their careers.

Check out our courses on communication and understanding

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