If we are going to take on the challenge of improving communication and related behavior, a.k.a. “soft” skills among health care professionals, we should be realistic. As nurses, doctors, and other health care professionals, we are keenly aware of how difficult changing behavior can be. We see it daily in our patients’ efforts regarding healthy choices and lifestyles. For example, it can be hard to lose weight, exercise regularly, or stop smoking, even if doing so will significantly improve quality of life.
It can also be hard for health care workers to develop positive communication behaviors contributing to healthy interactions. Even though research shows definitively that improving our interactions can lead to improvements in patient safety, patient experience, workforce health, and cost-effectiveness.
In behavioral terms, communication-related or soft skills show up as abilities to:
- Identify and express our needs, wants, limitations, and concerns.
- Honor needs, wants, limitations, and concerns of others.
- Be open to and learn from diversity and different perspectives.
- Show ownership and a willingness to work through conflict with others.
- Give and receive constructive feedback for learning purposes and with kindness.
- Forgive others for imperfections and apologize for our own.
- Seek help when needed and offer it when realistic.
- Take care of ourselves, be willing to compromise sometimes, and say “no” other times.
- Show empathy and compassion for ourselves and others.
- Empower patients to be partners in optimizing care and staff to experience meaningful and rewarding careers.
These behaviors and skills can help individuals provide safe, quality care and optimal patient experience while experiencing long-term, meaningful careers.
Contrast these with power struggles, resistance to change, hidden resentments, bullying, burnout, and blaming that are persistent and pervasive in health care and their adverse impact on critical outcomes.
We must recognize that such communication-related skills and behaviors are difficult to develop or practice. Especially when we are vulnerable and/or work in high-stakes, high-stress environments or toxic cultures. For most of us, the social and emotional development that underlies effective and respectful communication represents hard work. Growth requires observation, feedback, reflection, ownership, awareness, a willingness to change, practice opportunities, and a supportive culture.
The expectation that we could develop new healthier behaviors while ignoring the underlying challenging personal growth needed is one reason communication problems persist in health care despite two decades of awareness and change initiatives.
Despite the challenges, making health care a safer, more compassionate system for everyone is a worthy commitment.
Beth Boynton is a nurse and improvisation practitioner.
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