Beyond words: How to listen with your senses

"You're not yistening to me!"

My four-year-old daughter, who is still working on enunciating her L's, launches this complaint often. Though it's all-too-easy for me to focus on my own frustration of not being able to always understand her, the kid has a point. There are a number of ways I can and should be receiving her messages outside of her speech:

  • Body language -- Her delicate index finger pointed at her ferociously wide-open mouth generally indicates she wants lunch. Pronto.
  • Tone -- Whether screaming at the top of her lungs or whispering in my ear, the actual words that come out of a child's mouth are often nonsense. But what she's saying is that she wants attention, and sometimes some intimacy and private reassurance.
  • Context -- If it's getting close to lunchtime or bedtime, I should know better than try to address any topic other than her basic needs. On the other hand, if something unusual happened at school or she's recently had a new experience, it's especially important that I tune in closely.

The reason I bring these anecdotes up, other than an inability to resist teasing a child who can't yet post comments on the Internet, is that a resounding theme emerged from this week's FiercePracticeManagement: Communication.

In particular, top stories in this week's issue address improving the way doctors speak to patients, discussing the cost of care in the exam room and getting patients to take the medications they prescribe as directed. Managing all of these issues requires a two-way dialogue--not just of hearing and talking--but of truly listening, with all five senses, and responding in a meaningful way.

But because of the myriad of factors that influence patients' thought process during physician visits, from deep-seated fears to embarrassment to distraction, time pressure and medical limitations such as hearing impairment, language barriers or dementia, conversing with some patients isn't much easier than talking to a preschooler working with most but not all of the American alphabet.

Making these exchanges effective and satisfying requires both parties to pay close attention to items such as body language, tone and context outlined above. It's true that you can't control the way your patients communicate, but as a Hospital Impact post pointed out, you can coach them to give you more of the information you need.

Finally, I recommend you heed the tips provided in a recent Forbes post by marketing expert Michelle Crawley. Her most important piece of advice, in my opinion, is often the most overlooked and difficult: "Stop talking. If you want to hear what someone has to say, you have to be silent," she wrote.

To that end, I'll take that suggestion as my cue to sign off for this week. I look forward to reading your thoughts about the communication challenges you face in your medical practice and what you're doing to resolve them. - Deb (@PracticeMgt)