Good communication is at the heart of patient safety, cultural sensitivity, and the pillar of quality care. Most of the time we focus on the message we are communicating, and how best to choose words that adequately communicate the message we are trying to convey, while using language that the patient and family fully understand. Yet, as pointed out in a great NY Times Op Ed Piece this week (Doctor Shut up and Listen by Nitmal Joshi ), we need to focus equally on the other side of the communication equation, listening.
The core skill of good communication is listening. Listening requires that we put aside any thoughts of what we want to say next and just attend to the person talking. It requires that we be curious enough and interested enough in the other person to make sure we are clear about what they are saying, asking for clarification and reflecting back to make sure we have heard correctly. It is about taking seriously that the conversation is not about us but about the other.
Good listening is about understanding that good listening is often enough. Do patients want an answer to a question or do they just want me — as the therapist — to listen to them? They want to be heard and, through that hearing, respected. Do they want my words or do they want my attention and presence? Even when the patient is looking for an answer, listening and creating a space for the patient to reflect may be all they need to come to the answer themselves rather than having me impose it on them.
Don’t minimize listening by saying we “just” listened. This so simple but so powerful that often it is one of the best interventions we can make with our patients and their families.