Improve the Effectiveness of Communication with Your Staff

September 1, 2010
Ed Rabinowitz

It's extremely difficult to measure how well you're communicating on an ad hoc basis, but if done right, you can get a very good picture of the level, structure and nature of communications, and some good ideas of what you can do to improve.

There’s an expression used in many college English and public speaking courses that states, “You cannot not communicate.” In other words, we are always communicating, whether verbally or—as happens almost 90 percent of the time—non-verbally. The question for physicians is: how effectively are you communicating with your staff?

The answer, according to Steve Gill, founding partner of TRIARQ, a community of physicians, patients, physical therapists, and other healthcare professionals working together to create new standards in clinical and service excellence, is not easily obtained.

“It’s extremely difficult to measure how well you’re communicating on an ad hoc basis,” Gill explains. “But if you do it right, you can get a very good picture of the level, structure and nature of communications [in your practice], and some good ideas of what you can do to improve those communications.”

Talk to your team

Gill explains that there is a very specific series of survey questions physicians can use to assess the effectiveness of communication within their practice. It’s the same tool used by many businesses in industries outside the medical field, and Gill points out that “the issues of how you communicate are absolutely identical whether you’re running a small physician’s practice, or any size business of any sort.”

A good place to start, he says, is to find out if your staff understands what you expect of them, and what their roles are. “If a staff member is not quite sure what their role is, it’s hard to get high-level performance. And the reason to communicate is to get very high levels of performance.”

Another important element, says Gill, is talking to your staff individually about their progress. If you survey your staff and they say, “Nobody has talked with me about my progress for six months,” that’s a fairly insightful indicator of some of the communication challenges a particular office might face. But the solutions, Gill notes, are relatively easy.

“Sit down and plan over the next month to talk to your people about their progress,” he recommends. But don’t limit the interaction to one, initial conversation. “Practices should do this quarterly. It’s an excellent feedback loop. One of the worst things is a one-shot project, and then everything falls back to business as usual. [Surveying and talking with your staff] is something that needs to be sustained over a period of time, so it becomes part of the way the practice does business.”

Tips for talking

Karen Friedman is the head of Karen Friedman Enterprises, Inc., (www.karenfriedman.com), a Blue Bell, Pennsylvania-based organization that teaches business professionals how to communicate more effectively. She is also the author of Shut Up and Say Something: Business Communication Strategies to Overcome Challenges and Influence Listeners, which is due out in October. She offers the following tips for physicians looking to improve communications with their staff:

Keep It Simple

Limit the points you want to make so you can be direct and avoid confusion. The simpler you keep it, the clearer the message and the more likely the listener will understand what you want them to do or know.

Talk from their Standpoint, not Yours

When you deliver information, frame it from their perspective so they understand what it means to them, why they should care about it, how it will benefit or affect them.

Humanize what you are Saying

Put people back into your conversation as if you were talking to a neighbor. Use examples, anecdotes and quick stories as you would in personal conversations to bring the message to life and to make it relevant to the listener.

Provide direction and vision by articulating the problem first, the challenges and then talk about your recommendations and solutions.

Allow them to offer their thoughts and opinions when possible so they feel their opinion counts and that they are valued. When you make others feel important, they are more inclined to follow, work harder to help you accomplish your goals and cut you some slack along the way.

Get Rid of the Jargon

Just because they understand the words, doesn’t mean you should use them. Sit in their seats to think about how it might sound to you.

Gill echoes those thoughts, and he points out that it’s communicating with your staff is only one part of the equation. It’s equally important to make sure your staff understands your genuine interest in and desire for them to succeed. After all, they are an extension of you.

“Have a sense of what each staff member is truly excellent at,” Gill says. “Most people are happy to develop in their areas of strength. And that’s important for the relationship between the physician and his or her team, but also for the performance of the individual.”