Friday, April 17, 2020

Practice Your Patient Advocacy Skills Now: Communication is Crucial in Supporting Others

Elaine was telling her friend that she was really upset about being quarantined and stuck at home all day. Elaine couldn’t wait for this to be over, I heard her say.

Her friend Dana immediately responded with, “I know how you feel.” I assumed she was trying to be helpful, but Dana continued: “I can’t stand this. I miss my friends at work, my house is just too small for all of us all day and we are all getting on each others’ nerves.”

Dana thought she was being helpful and empathizing with Elaine, but instead, she was not. She took the attention away from her friend and brought it to herself. She said she knew how her friend felt and shared her friend’s frustration, yet never listened to what her friend’s frustration was. In trying to connect with her friend, Dana did just the opposite.

Elaine actually was sad because she had lost her mother shortly before the quarantine started, and being alone with her thoughts all day long caused her sadness. The conversation never went back to what was disturbing Elaine. It was now all about Dana.

Don’t Talk, Listen

This is not uncommon, and as patient advocates one of the things we need to do is avoid believing we know what someone else is thinking or how they are feeling. No matter what the topic is, if you don’t keep the conversation about the other person or if you to start talk about yourself and your own experience, you will take the conversation away from the person you are trying to connect with.

In our Pulse Family-Centered Patient Advocacy classes, communication is a key part of the training. Listening without interrupting, encouraging the other person to continue a conversation where they want to take it and not steering them somewhere else isn’t easy, but it is important to being a good listener and connecting with and helping others.

I usually use the example of the woman who tells her adult daughter that she doesn’t want to take her medication. The adult daughter gives her reasons why she should take her medication. “You need to take it, Mom, so you don’t end up in the hospital again,” or “Mother, you know it’s important to take the medication.” Instead, the daughter could ask, “Tell me what’s going on that means you don’t want to take the medication.” It could be that it is a sad reminder that she even needs medication, or that the medication causes other medical problems, or maybe it’s too expensive. By not opening the conversation with words like “tell me more”, people who want to help often lose a good opportunity to do so by not learning more.

When Larry was sharing his experience of being in a car accident, his brother said that he knew how Larry felt because Larry’s insurance “wouldn’t cover all the damage and his insurance premiums would go up.” In fact, Larry was much more concerned that he had caused serious injury or damage to others. The brother had closed Larry down from sharing his real concerns, which was not supportive at all.

Be Curious

By being curious we can be supportive. At a time such as we are living in now, almost everyone has concerns in common. Financial concerns, national upset, fears of health problems for ourselves and loved ones and even the possibility of death — our own or that of someone we care about. Still, there are many ways to offer support and empathy to others. Allowing someone to share what is actually upsetting them is important to supporting them.

The next time someone says that they are getting frustrated, angry, upset or . . . (fill in the feeling), look them in the eye, put down your cell phone and — as we teach at Pulse Center for Patient Safety Education & Advocacy — ask them to tell you more. No advice, no trying to solve the problem, just listen.

Ilene Corina