Communication Styles in Action

Last time, I wrote about the company retreat I helped facilitate that focused on empathy, kindness and communication styles. As a person who is very focused on caring for people, it was interesting to me to talk with those who focus on the action of fixing the problem, not so much the feelings of the people involved. 

Timing is everything. Just a few days later, I got a phone call from one of our hospitalist physicians asking for my help. There was a patient on our med/surg unit who was very unhappy. This physician had done his best to make things better, but the patient really wanted to complain to someone in administration. “I’m on my way.” 

I got off the elevator and made my way to the nurses’ station where he was waiting for me, and along with him was the director of the unit. He had been telling her about this unhappy patient and when I said I was going in to speak with him, she offered to come, too.

“Let’s do this together,” she said. “I don’t do the touchy-feely stuff, that’s not really what I’m good at.” “Sometimes, that’s not what’s needed,” I answered, remembering what we had covered in that retreat the week before. “Maybe he’s not a touchy-feely type. Let’s see what he says.”

We entered his room and introduced ourselves. He proceeded to tell us all about the things he was unhappy with. We listened intently. Everything he complained about, she wrote down and when he was finished, she immediately sprang into action. She told him all the things she was going to do and how long she’d be gone and then went off to get started. I stayed behind.

He told me how much he appreciated people like her. It was clear that she cared and was going to do everything she could to fix the issues, but to him, what was done was done. 

Rather than feel powerless, I decided to go after the touchy-feely. I’d noticed a Happy Birthday balloon in the corner of the room and asked if it was his birthday. “Yesterday. My daughter brought me that.”

“You had to celebrate your birthday in the hospital? I’m so sorry to hear that. That’s not a fun way to spend your birthday!” 

“Yeah, well I don’t know how many more I’m going to have so I’m happy to spend them anywhere,” he said. The tone of the room changed and his face went from serious to sad. “I don’t mean to be one of those patients who complains about everything,” he said. “I just want people to care, to do a good job, to deliver what they promise. You have people here who just don’t seem to care. This director, she cares. You can tell things matter to her. Look, she solved my problem in two seconds. But others… they’re just sleepwalking.”

I told him how sorry I was that this was how he had experienced us. “That’s not who we are,” I said. “That’s not how we want you to think of us.” He reached for my hand. “Thank you. I know you two are doing your best.” He sort of half smiled and closed his eyes. 

At that point, the director came back in and told him what she had done to fix his complaint. He thanked her, smiled at me, and closed his eyes again. 

The two of us walked back to the elevator, happy that she was able to address the action items and I was able to address the touchy-feely part. 

The whole time, I kept thinking about what I’d experienced in that retreat and how important it is to work with people who fill in your holes, who can do the things that you can’t. Instead of seeing another’s strengths as better than or inferior to yours, think of them as complementary to yours. Instead of competing, try collaborating.

It’s probably the best thing you can do for your patients.

Author: Kate Kalthoff

It's simple: leave people, places, and things better than I found them. For more than 20 years, Katherine Kalthoff has been working to improve the way healthcare organizations connect with the people they serve. She began her career at Gift of Hope, the organ procurement organization for Illinois, approaching families and securing their consent to donate a loved one’s organs for transplant. Through compassionate, empathetic listening, Kate led the Family Services team to one of the highest consent rates in the country. From there, Kate went to Advocate Health Care, Illinois’s largest healthcare system, as a Physician Relations and Business Development Manager, improving physician satisfaction and strengthening the relationships of both the employed and independent physicians with the system as a whole. Just prior to joining Northwest Community Healthcare as the Patient Experience Officer, Kate was the first Manager of Patient Experience at DuPage Medical Group where she built a platform of organization-wide service excellence through her inspiring brand of education, training, and one-on-one coaching. A much sought-after speaker and trainer, Kate has a very simple approach to her work: leave people, places and things better than you found them.

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