Good communication in health care is about listening

A great deal of effort in the current health care environment is being put into improving communication – between patients and families and members of the health care team, among family members, and among members of the team. The case can be made that good communication is at the heart of patient safety, cultural sensitivity, and the pillar of palliative care — aligning patient’s wishes and goals with treatment plans.

So all we have to do is communicate. Much easier said than done. Yes, in some of this communication, a big part of the equation is learning to use words that adequately communicate the message we are trying to convey while using language that the patient and family fully understand.

But 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.

And finally and most importantly, good listening is about understanding that good listening is often enough. I still find myself thinking sometimes that the patient or family member actually wants an answer to their question when, indeed, they only want me — as the chaplain — to listen to them. They want to be heard and, through that hearing, respected. They don’t want my words; 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 is all they need to come to the answer themselves rather than having me impose it on them.

We so often minimize listening by saying we “just” listened. Indeed this so simple but so powerful process can often be one of the best interventions we can make with our patients and their families.

The Rev. George Handzo is vice president for chaplaincy care leadership and practice at HealthCare Chaplaincy in New York and a past president of  the  Association of Professional Chaplains. 

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