From the moment we are born, we learn to interact with others. We are, by nature, social beings who require connection and intimacy with other humans. Well-developed social skills, including the lost art of conversation, will always stand you in good stead in any situation or environment, but particularly with your patients’ satisfaction. In fact, emotional intelligence (EQ) is becoming increasingly recognised as equally important as IQ. So no matter who you are speaking to, or where you find yourself, being able to relate authentically to another individual is paramount. This applies even more so in a role where your interactions with patients can have a lasting effect on their well-being. The following communication techniques can assist you to improve those interactions and make for smoother relationships in all areas of your life. Verbal communication Verbal communication is a good place to start. Good verbal communication should be clear and easily understood. Ensure that you use ‘layman’s terms’ and are not speaking above the level of understanding of your patient. Be careful of your tone, so that you don’t unwittingly come across as condescending or patronising. Finally, some of your patients may be hard of hearing: speak slowly and clearly, and face the person you are speaking to. “You have to be able to communicate in simple terms and be able to give a concise message. You have to be able to communicate in layman’s language and you need to be able to distil concepts and present them simply.” Dr Joe Kosterich, a Perth-based GP with more than 20 years’ experience in the media. Non-verbal communication As the old adage goes, 10 percent is what you say and 90 percent is how you say it. This includes body language, along with tone of voice. Aim to master a friendly, open and relaxed disposition when speaking to your patients. Empathy can also be cultivated — be aware of your non-verbal cues when delivering bad news. Tension and stress can be easily misinterpreted as hostility and anger. Always endeavour to ensure there is no miscommunication. If in doubt, ask the person to whom you are speaking to clarify what they think has been said. “It comes down to your own experience. I have been practising since 1993, and I see a huge number of women every week, so you tend to develop another sense of how to connect.” Dr David Shaker, Obstetrician and Gynaecologist. Manners Having basic good manners can be more than helpful in all aspects of your life. People will generally react positively when shown kindness, politeness and respect. Please, may I, and thank you can go a very long way. Problem solving Rather than focusing on the problem, focus on finding a solution instead. It is easy to get bogged down in a problem and not be able to see a way out. If possible, take a walk, breathe deeply for a few minutes, calm your mind, talk it out with a friend or colleague and get plenty of rest (and proper sleep). This will allow the solutions to come to you. Often a solution will appear when you are distracted and when you least expect it. When in doubt about a decision, sleep on it. Your subconscious mind will do the work for you. If you have a religious or spiritual nature, you may find prayer or meditation helpful as well. “If you have spiritual faith, that can help to a great extent. I am a Christian. I have some friends who renew my faith when I feel down and it adds meaning.” Dr David Shaker, Obstetrician and Gynaecologist. Listening There’s a huge difference between hearing and truly listening. ‘Active’ listening enables you to process and interpret all those non-verbal signals being sent to you so that you can give appropriate feedback. When there are no misunderstandings, the communication between two people reaches an enviable level that’s clear and efficient. Give the person you are speaking with your full attention – look at them while they are speaking and minimise any distractions such as phone calls, emails and other people. Stay focused on the conversation at hand. “I feel very humbled that so many people want to come and talk to me and tell me their problems. You have to be prepared to listen and not talk for a lot of the time. I love feeling that my patients trust me enough to look after them. It’s a huge responsibility.” Dr Patricia Stuart, Medical Educator. Responsibility and self-management In order to effectively communicate with other people, you must first be aware of your preconceived thoughts, values, conditioning and judgements, and be able to regulate yourself. Through greater self-awareness and self-management, you’ll learn not to allow the emotions, reactions and impressions you experience on a daily basis to adversely affect your work and interactions. Assertiveness Holding strong beliefs also implies standing up for them. The key to developing assertiveness and the confidence to speak your mind is letting go of fear. This may be fear of entering an argument, being seen as confrontational or having to defend your ideology. Assertiveness training can be valuable to develop confidence. Developing healthy assertiveness and standing up for issues you feel passionate about will help you gain self-respect and self-belief. “You learn lots of strategies. Primarily, strategies to take the fight away. It’s the ability to say no without saying no. It’s learning how to de-escalate the situation, how to manage people who don’t have great coping strategies and coping mechanisms.” Dr Cameron Loy, GP, Metropolitan Remand Centre, Melbourne. Questioning Questions can clarify a situation, provide further information and are an excellent conversation starter. Never be afraid to ask a question if you feel it is appropriate for the situation. It is especially important in the field of medicine to get consensus about diagnosis and treatment, and if you feel unsure about a situation, to ask a colleague for their opinion. No matter how good your social skills may be, there are always opportunities to hone them if you so desire. While there are people who find communication comes naturally, and don’t have any issues relating to others, most of us need to work on continually developing these important life skills.