“You talkin’ to me? You talkin’ to ME?!!?”

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“Hey?! Can I get a rectal temp on that patient over there?”

“Beth.”

“No, the patient’s name is Smith.”

“No, I’m Beth.”

“Oh. Hi. Can you do it?”

“And what’s your name?”

“Oh, of course…Katie, my name is Katie. Nice to meet you.”

That conversation happened on one of my first days as an intern in the ED. And it only took about 20 seconds of my time. Now Beth and I are tight, she’ll do anything for me, and you know what, I do things for her too. Because she forced me to engage with her as a human being who deserves respect. We established mutual respect in just 20 seconds and it has drastically changed my experience as an intern in a very busy, urban ED.

It’s easy to see people you work with as just a nurse or a tech or a secretary instead of a human being with a name or a personality. I used to be known as the blonde doctor, and that would really make me angry. Why don’t I have an identity more
than the color of my hair? Instead of getting angry about it though, I changed it by introducing myself to every new person I met, including environmental, PCT, and administration, to make sure everyone knew my name in the ED. And it worked.

There are a few key skills you must attain to have good communication with others. First, you must eliminate bias and hierarchy. Go back to the golden rule: treat everyone as you would like to be treated. Yes, I’m telling you all to act like five-year-olds. The world of a child is simple because children don’t see the bias that we see as adults. Your kid doesn’t care that you’re a doctor and saving lives all day, all he cares about is that you are home for supper and that you come to his soccer match. Apply this concept at work: treat everyone with respect and you will get respect. Seems easy, right?

This is actually tougher than you think because it’s hard to eliminate bias and treat others with respect when people are rude to you. This is where empathy comes in as a key aspect of excellent communication. Sometimes, you approach a conversation with the best intentions and somehow it spirals out of control and you’re left standing there wondering why, with all your kind words and pleases and thank yous, the other person was so rude to you. It gives you a bad taste in your mouth and makes you not want to have any further interactions with them. You might take this negative experience, internalize it, make it about yourself, and decide you have been wronged and refuse to expose yourself to that negativity again–either being equally rude
back to the person or ignoring them altogether. Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me, right? Wrong. Taking this self-centered approach whenever you feel slighted doesn’t help anyone, and in fact, will probably just make things even worse the next time around.

This is where another essential aspect of effective communication comes in: your listening skills. Listen to what the other person is saying, both verbally and with their body language. This will help you realize that not everyone acts a certain way because of something YOU did. Once you realize this, it’s easy to take a step back and say to yourself, hey, why did this person just snap at me? Maybe it’s because she’s having a bad day because of home troubles or something else. Perhaps it has nothing to do with you. The simple act of showing concern improves communication because it humanizes us and shows that we care on a deeper level than the menial things that our discussion actually entails.

Let’s have an example. One day, I asked a nurse to give a patient the pain medication I had ordered. This particular patient was a frail, elderly lady with a hip fracture in excruciating pain and really needed her medicine, especially before the orthopedics resident came to evaluate her and press on her hip. I had asked the nurse multiple times, but she was just not doing it. Why?! It was so frustrating to me. After 45 minutes passed with no medication given, I found the nurse on her phone in the medication room. In a whirlwind, I rapped on the door expecting to find her perusing through the latest Facebook status updates. She snapped at me, “Just give me a *$&^# minute!” I didn’t expect to find her on her phone with her daughter, who was home sick in bed with Grandma watching over her. The nurse’s daughter was six months old, and it was the nurse’s first baby and her first illness. The nurse was distracted by this real life stressor and found herself helpless with her situation. Once I saw how distraught she was, I offered her a few kind words, told her to take a few minutes and offered to give the medication myself. The feelings of frustration that she wasn’t doing her job totally dissipated when I realized what she was going through. She was a human being, a new mother, and having a terrible day.

She later told me how much she appreciated my support because she said it was nice that someone at work cared that she was sacrificing her own happiness to take care of others who were sick. That’s why we are all here in medicine, to take care of the sick, but sometimes we lose ourselves in the mix. So a kind word and a hug go a long way.

Plato once said, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a harder battle.” You are going to meet rude, selfish, horrible people in all walks of your life, in every adventure you embark on, and it’s hard to walk in the shoes of another person and really understand what someone is going through. Treat these people with kindness, give everyone the benefit of the doubt and it may make the walk a bit easier. Assume that they aren’t being rude just to annoy you, but that their behavior is being sparked by something internal that is unbeknownst to you. Yes, sometimes, with some people, it won’t always matter. But others are just regular human beings who have bad days and take it out on others unknowningly. We have all been there and done that. These are the people toward whom we should give our care and understanding. Maybe this has been missing from their lives  and maybe you made the difference. Pay it forward.

So the keys to awesome communication:
1. Learn everyone’s name.
2. Eliminate bias. Just because you find one sour grape
does not mean the whole bunch is spoiled.
3. Eliminate hierarchy. You are no better in life than any other
person you work with, despite what your title is or how much your
paycheck holds.
4. Treat others with kindness and respect.
5. Have empathy.
6. Listen.
7. Pay it forward.

Try these techniques during your next difficult interaction and I
think you’ll be pleasantly surprised at how effective it is. Happy
communicating!