Is Your Communication a Superpower or Kryptonite?

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kryptonite

Listening and conversing techniques to improve your private practice

By Chris K. Kopp, PT, DPT

Anyone who knows me even remotely, knows I like to talk. Maybe it runs in the family, as my mom’s favorite thing to interject in her sometimes-lengthy stories, is her repeating “so anyway” as she tries to get back to her original story or train of thought.

My kids also make fun of my wife, as she will strike up a conversation with anyone. We playfully say that she could make friends with a brick wall. Her being a teacher and me being a physical therapist obviously allow this superpower to be extremely helpful in our chosen professions. Unfortunately, I have noticed some therapists struggling at times to verbally communicate. Specifically, I have observed this with some of my physical therapy students.

DIFFERENT GENERATIONS

In our program, we push verbal communication skills in most of our classes. Between required student presentations, to how we conduct our practical exams now with mock patients who are not their classmates, proper professional interpersonal skills have become a priority.

My daughter is very outgoing in general, but certainly prefers texting and emailing versus physically calling or engaging someone face-to-face, particularly if the subject matter is a bit on the sensitive side. Of course, this type of communication can avoid some potential negative interactions that result in defensive behaviors and arguments. The downside to written communication is that ideas can be lost in translation. Our written words sometimes lack proper manners and courtesy, allowing thoughts to be more easily misinterpreted. I’m sure you have experienced this at times, possibly with your team, as you quickly send out an email or reply to an email or a text. Sometimes short and sweet can come across as not too sweet!

What, then is the best form of communication? I’m not sure this can be adequately covered or “communicated” in this article, but I will do my best!

ART OF LISTENING

The most important part of communication is the art of listening. Or better yet, active listening. When I was transitioning between getting a degree in engineering to physical therapy, I took two semesters of acting. A concept I remember my professor pounding into our heads was the idea of proper listening. He explained that listening is not just waiting for your turn to speak. It is taking the time to be in the moment and concentrate on the words we are hearing.

The context in this situation was for an actor to pay attention to what the other actor was saying in case they said their lines a little differently than what was in the script. It also allowed for some spontaneity of emotion, body language, and verbal interaction. In the real world, this also keeps us from interrupting early because we are so anxious to get our point across instead of intently listening to the other person. Using active listening allows for those words to sink in a bit and then we can modify our pre-planned response for the situation versus going straight to what we were going to say without consideration of the other individual.

MIRRORING

Similar to active listening is a communication concept called mirroring. Mirroring can be a great way to build rapport quickly with someone when meeting for the first time, such as a new patient. It can be applied to your front desk when handling a call from a frustrated patient. It can be applied to us as employers talking to our employees. Mirroring also allows the other individual we are communicating with to feel valued and appreciated and for us to show empathy.

What is mirroring exactly? It is pretty much what you might think. It is essentially an imitation technique. For instance, it could mean adjusting your tone of voice or energy to meet another’s. I am generally a high-energy person, but at times, I realize I need to tone down my energy level when I am interacting with a patient who is fearful or more cautious.

When using mirroring in communication, it allows the other person to know that you understand them, are aware of their feelings, and that you are interested in them. Mirroring could also involve repeating what someone has just said to you in their words, conveying that you want to understand them and are truly listening.

We have trained our therapists to use mirroring at the conclusion of their evaluations when explaining their findings by repeating to the patient their chief complaints and goals for physical therapy. We find this creates a relationship from the beginning based on trust and self-belief by the patient that their therapist really cares about them specifically. This leads to a better agreement on the plan of care and encourages patients to actively participate all the way to the discharge visit. We find that certain Key Performance Indicators like attendance rate and visits to discharge typically increase, as well.

The same principles can be applied to non-clinical interactions such as conflict resolution with patients or employees. It is important for the other person to know their opinion and feelings are appreciated and received, even if we disagree or need to come to a negotiated result.

It is also important to note that mirroring is not mimicking. We don’t want to mirror negativity or hostility. In those situations, we may have to concentrate even more on active listening, repeating their concerns in a summarized way. It also requires tremendous patience to allow someone to vent and then utilize techniques such as re-direction and self-reflection. At times, it may be better to pass this conflict to someone else in the organization who may be able to communicate differently than you.

LISTENING IN ACTION

Recently, I had to get involved in a situation involving an employee and my general manager. I began to see some biting words and a different tone in some email replies from my front desk coordinator. I reached out to a couple of employees to inquire, and they mentioned that they noticed that as well. I spoke with someone close to this person first to get a sense of what may be going on. She was able to give me some background regarding issues between them and my general manager. I then set up a time to speak with my front desk coordinator and used active listening and mirroring to give this employee an opportunity to express themselves as I reinforced and acknowledged their issue. This allowed my employee to reveal why they have been frustrated lately. They told me that they feel my general manager, at times, doesn’t appear to listen. Their conversations tend to be one-sided, and they don’t feel valued and appreciated. We were also able to dive into some other issues that had been adding to some additional frustration.

By properly acknowledging this feedback, I was then able to share my thoughts and detail some changes I would like to see in the future. For instance: encouraging timelier communication with superiors regarding feelings instead of waiting to the point where personality starts to change or negative tones in emails appear.

I also then had to meet with my GM, share this feedback, and allow them to express themselves with me again using active listening and some mirroring concepts. Then, I was able to have them appreciate the feedback and the need to be more cognizant when communicating with this employee.

All of this was not much fun and quite a bit of work and energy on my end. However, good employee relations are probably one of the most important things to a successful business.

Proper communication is a superpower. It allows you to transform or shift the energy of a room or situation. Communication superheroes have the power to beat the villains of negativity, poor interaction, and uncooperative behaviors. 

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Chris K. Kopp, PT, DPT

Chris K. Kopp, PT, DPT, is an APTA Private Practice member and owner of Premier Physical Therapy in Jacksonville, Florida. He also serves as an adjunct professor for the University of North Florida DPT program. He can be reached at chris.kopp@pptjax.com.

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