My journey to learning effective communication started because I was pissed off and frustrated.
I have always wanted to help people, it’s why I became a massage therapist.
I define helping people as supporting and empowering them to be the best versions of themselves and the more I worked as an RMT the further I felt from that goal. Before me was this void, a place where I threw in my frustrations like, “well this isn’t my scope of practice so there is nothing I can do about it”, or the idea that “no ones going to change, the problem is too big anyways”.
I could visualize that if I empower my patients it would create self-efficacy and I saw this as the best way to help.
I could see how empowering people was the goal but I was lacking something needed to achieve this which was creating a barrier.
The tools I was given in school did not prepare me for the complexities of what it means to help people, I was given a rake and told to dig a ditch. This frustration created a gap between where I was and where I wanted to be.
The first step to closing this gap was identifying the source of my frustration, which was not my patients and the complexities they presented with, but actually myself.
I’ve also been impacted by my lived experience through trauma and healing and the frustration of feeling so overwhelmed and lost while everyone is telling you what you ‘should do’. Because of this, I knew how empowering it was to have an active involvement in my own health and healing journey, however, I also knew what worked for me wasn’t enough. This all led to the realization I was seeking, and what my patients needed was to be seen, heard, and validated and if I wanted to cross this barrier it would be through effective communication.
Why Communication Is Of Great Benefit To You And Your Patients
When I think about what brings the greatest benefit to my patients I think about emotional intelligence, the “ability to recognize and understand emotions in yourself and others, and your ability to use this awareness to manage your behaviour and relationships” (Bradberry & Greaves, 2009, p. 17).
Emotional intelligence (EQ) can further be broken down into personal and social competencies which is the “ability to stay aware of your emotions and manage your behaviour and tendencies” while also understanding “other people’s moods, behaviour, and motives in order to improve the quality of your relationships” (Bradberry & Greaves, 2009, p.23-24).
The more I became focused on developing my self-awareness, (which is one of the EQ skills), the greater my ability to acknowledge that the way I communicate with people is influenced by every past experience. This means I have to take into account my privileges, biases, and assumptions when I am communicating with my colleagues and patients.
This is a great benefit to patients because “you can only choose how to respond to an emotion actively when you’re aware of it” (p. 98) and when I am aware of how my past experiences influence my communication I can start with the intent to listen and understand before anything else.
Secondly, humbleness is needed because I’ve gotten it wrong more than I’ve gotten it right. I’m quick to jump ahead of myself and shove new information and science down my patients’ throats. I want to give them the best treatment and sometimes I get lost in making it about myself and how effective I can be instead of centering my care around their needs and concerns.
Being humble as a therapist is a continuous reminder that patient-centered care cannot be about me, I don’t know everything, and I must consistently choose to listen first and be ok with getting it wrong. Effective communication is not about you, but it is about your actions because it creates an environment of safety by validating whatever our patients bring to the table.
Four Tips To Help Improve Your Communication
Letting a patient be seen, heard, and validated means recognizing it is not about us and our identities as healers and therapists but about our patients and how we can use the resources we have to support and empower people to be the best version of themselves.
When it comes to communicating more effectively, think about an iceberg, most of what you will learn is internal growth and used to inform your perspective.
Some helpful tips to put effective communication into practice are:
- Check-in with yourself and ask questions about your intentions, “what perspective and bias am I coming into this conversation with?” The narrative behind your intentions matters and in order to work on your communication I challenge you to ask yourself if the story you created matches the facts of the situation. For example, I can tell myself a story thinking a patient is lazy and doesn’t want to get better instead of looking at how I don’t know everything that is impacting my patient and what may be a barrier in their healing journey.
- Focus on inquiry over advocacy. This could look like asking your patient “tell me what you’re experiencing, where is (insert patient’s concern) having the biggest impact in your life? If your patient’s concern is, for example, persistent low back pain, by inquiring first you can get a better understanding of what the biggest driver behind their pain is and have a better idea as to what intervention would be most effective. I can recall many times where I have focused purely on advocacy, where I was driven to make my patient understand that in order to eliminate low back pain they needed to know why core bracing and hip hinging were so important. In some cases, these interventions are incredibly helpful because they create safety for the patient, but in my drive to advocate for what was best for my patient I did not ask what they needed.
- Learn to be ok with what’s uncomfortable, you won’t always get it right, and changing how you communicate can feel awkward. When in doubt less is more, I frequently repeat back to the patient what they have shared with me, and confirm the treatment goals so the patient knows their concerns have been heard and will be addressed.
- Stay humble and make a commitment to always ask ‘why?’. “Why am I irritated by new information that challenges my belief system as a therapist?” “Why am I apprehensive about treating a certain patient population?” “Why do I make always or never statements, and is that narrative actually true?