Most audiologists and SLPs navigate difficult conversations every day. Just last week, I met a man recently diagnosed with ALS who was finding it difficult to speak and even harder to swallow. Who knows what to say to that? I sure didn’t. Sadly, sometimes our clients don’t always leave our offices feeling that they’ve been fully heard when that’s exactly what they need most.
As a person who stutters, I know what it’s like not to be heard. It makes me want to make sure my clients never feel this way. Although listening skills are human (we all have them), truly excellent listening skills seem superhuman. But they’re so important: They increase patient buy-in and lower the skyrocketing costs of health care.
During my interaction with patients , I discovered eight tips to help us bond and listen to one another better.
- Treat them like they’re the experts in themselves … because they are.
You may know a lot about a patient’s cochlea or larynx, but your patient knows a lot about herself. Learn from her about what really matters most.
- Give them as much control as you can.
People feel vulnerable in health care settings. But they can feel more empowered when they’re given choices, even small ones. For example, instead of knocking on a closed door in an inpatient setting and immediately walking into the room, knock, peek your head in, and ask, “May I come in?” The outcome remains the same, but the patient now likes you more than perhaps most of her other health care professionals.
- Stop talking so much.
Research shows that patients only correctly remember about 25 percent of what health care professionals tell them. Yet, we tend to give lengthy explanations about treatment or launch into didactic monologues. A different approach is to say just one chunk of information at a time, then pause for three seconds—really count them—so they have time to process and actually speak up and give you more direction on what they need.
- Give patients specific signs demonstrating you hear what they’re saying.
If we want patients to completely share their experiences, encourage them. Instead of constructing your own response in your head while they talk, really listen and respond appropriately. Look troubled when they tell you disturbing news or ecstatic when they’re joyful. Update your facial expressions to match their emotions. Change your tone of voice as you reply. People will talk more if they feel like you’re listening to them.
- Allow patients to feel their negative feelings.
We sometimes rush to reassure a patient who’s nervous about a test with a pat, “Everything’s going to be fine.” This sentences expresses to them that, “Your apprehension makes me uncomfortable, so please stop.” The research shows, however, how verbally validating a person’s feelings reduces their fight-or-flight response. Say something like, “I understand you’re nervous about this and it’s OK to feel that way. Let me know when you’re ready; I’ll be here every step of the way.”
- Always try to talk to a patient or client at their eye level.
The power balance is skewed in the professional’s direction in most health care situations. Try to make it more level by speaking to clients at their eye level. If a patient is sitting in a chair, don’t stand over him. Sit down and look at him eye-to-eye.
- Remove barriers from between you.
A computer screen in front of you makes you seem inaccessible. If you want the clearest communication with patients or clients, create a clear path between you. Move equipment to the side, uncross your arms and legs, and lean forward. Appear open and available.
- Use physical reassurance to lessen fear.
Especially in clinical or medical settings, patients might feel a little dehumanized. A squeeze on the back of the shoulder or pat on the arm lets a person know they’re not just something that has to be handled with rubber gloves.
The conversations we face are tough, but using these tips will promote mutual listening and increase the likelihood that your patients will heed and follow your recommendations.
Stephen Groner is a graduate student in speech-language pathology at Vanderbilt University. firstname.lastname@example.org