Practicing Mindful Communication

I spent the last week in Orlando, Florida at the Press Ganey National Client Conference. There were so many highlights, including having the opportunity to listen to Condoleezza Rice as well as a plethora of others doing their best to leave this world better for them having been in it. What inspires me the most is their unswerving dedication, despite having seen so much opposition, to continue to fight to improve our lives, whether it be in the realm of security, or healthcare.

One of the most insightful and inspiring sessions I attended was titled, “Activating Physician Culture with Physician Coaching in Relationship Centered Care.” The session was led by three doctors who have instituted a training program at Texas Children’s Hospital for doctors to improve the skills it takes to build relationships with patients that foster meaningful communication. They spoke of the directionally correlated relationship between good communication and quality of care outcomes.

One of the distinctions they made was the emphasis on relationship centered care–not “doctor centered” or even “patient centered”–but relationship centered. They spoke of the lack of communication training that physicians–but in reality all caregivers–receive, and yet, they said, communicating is one of the most common “procedures” a physician will do. Yet so many do it so incompetently: they stated studies have shown a physician will typically interrupt their patient in the first 14 seconds of a conversation. I would say that is not necessarily only a physician problem, but a human problem.

In the training one focus is on the importance of listening. To demonstrate they had us participate in a listening activity they do in their trainings with the physicians. The concept was simple: in pairs, one participant would share with the other a challenge they were having at work, while the other would listen. The game rules were that the listener would not interrupt, but rather they would let the other’s story unfold. Once the speaker was done, the listener would then try to restate  what they think they had heard, specifically listening for the other to confirm by saying something like, “Yes, that’s right.”

I have to admit I did an inner eye roll when they said we were going to have to do this activity. I think I’ve done something similar at some point, and I’ve always considered myself a good listener. In this particular case, I was the speaker. I let my story unfold. My listener, a stranger, leaned in, gave me all of her attention. She didn’t interrupt me, and when I was done, she tried to repeat in her own words, the meaning behind what I was saying.

She was a good listener. In less than two minutes, I felt like she knew me, she connected with me. And I realized how rare this type of communication is. I realized how rarely I am a good listener, because I am mostly hearing in order to know how to respond.

I realized I’ve been missing out on the stories I could have let unfold. On understanding and connecting with others and letting conversations flow and travel down their own paths, paths to new meaning and new understanding, vs me taking control and guiding the conversation to at best a familiar path, and at worst (how many times have I done this?) to a screeching halt.

Today I tried to listen to understand. I tried to get the meaning of the stories behind what people were talking to me about and I was cautious of injecting my own experience, insight, or whatever. Because what I saw in a new way through this particular session was the importance and significance of others’ experiences, not just my own.

**In my video I mention one of the doctors was from John Hopkins. When I went back to confirm I realized that was not correct. The speakers were Laura Cooley, PhD, Executive Director, American Academy on Communication in Healthcare (AACH); Larry H. Hollier, Jr. MD, FACS, FAAP, Chief, Division of Plastic Surgery, Texas Children’s Hospital; and Calvin Chou, MD, PhD, FAACH, Vice President for External Education, AACH; Professor of Clinical Medicine, UCSF.




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