3 rules for effective communication (and when to break them)

The perfect communicator doesn't exisit. Rather, the art and science of exchanging messages is one we continue to hone throughout our lives, regardless of job title. As a writer, perhaps I'm more attuned to this process than some, but the lessons are universal. Here are a few loose communication rules that relate to topics included in this week's FiercePracticeManagement and beyond:

Answer "What's in it for me?" before someone asks. Never lead a conversation with your own agenda. This rule means that sometimes you will have to finesse your message. Telling patients, for example, "Here is our financial policy, which we need you to read and sign"--a typical statement--puts the patient's motivation for doing so in a very narrow, "I'm doing this because I have to" kind of place. How might the interaction (and the practice's ongoing relationship with the patient) shift if staff presented the document as the resource that it is? For instance: "Here is our financial policy, which explains everything you need to know about how we handle copayments, billing statements, inquiries and more. Please let me know if you have any questions, and then sign at the bottom to confirm that you understand and agree to these terms." Sure, the second version takes longer to say, but think about how much time and potential hostility it might save in the long run. If the person is unengaged from the get-to, he or she is less likely to actually read the document. Rather, you'll get a hastily scrawled-out signature and numerous calls to your practice after the patient receives bills or correspondence he or she doesn't understand.

Know your character. We communicate not just with words but also with tone, body language and timing. And as mentioned in our article about how to maximize the power of meetings, there are times you need to exercise control over these behaviors. In other words, act. You may really want to freak out that your practice received some poor reviews on Yelp, for example, but frantic behavior will do little to resolve the problem. A better approach, according to experts, is to stay steady and convey an attitude of, "We're in this together and will find and execute a solution." Also know that there may be times to let the persona go. For some circumstances, there is no resolution, only humanity. A photo of a physician crying after losing a patient that went viral this week is evidence that you need not shun emotion from medicine.

Think a few steps ahead of your audience. Never assume you know how a person or group may respond to your words, but anticipate some possibilities. Physicians experienced at the difficult task of giving patients an Alzheimer's diagnosis, for example, can often predict what questions patients may ask about their future with the disease. A big question that people ask (often silently or even subconsciously) when being given any type of information is, "What is your intention in saying this to me?" Doctors rarely tell patients information with the intention of making them upset, but patients can and do experience negative emotions nevertheless. But even in the most difficult of discussions, there's almost always something still in it for the person receiving the news. For a person with a terminal illness, it's the opportunity to explore options and make decisions, to live the rest of his or her life with the awareness that time may be short. In situations as delicate as these, lead with compassion and close with instruction.

As you can see, to every rule--in communication, the English language and life in general--there's usually an exception. The key is to pay attention, learn actively and develop an intuition for when to throw out what you've learned. - Deb (@PracticeMgt)