Listening: The Key to Getting Through to a Patient

Communication is quite the buzzword in healthcare. It’s said that faulty communication is the reason for many errors leading to patient injury and even death. This is why a lot of the seminars and training that caregivers undergo are about the proper ways to communicate with patients.

Effective communication must be two-way. This means that, for both parties to understand each other, there must be an uninterrupted flow of information to and from both sides. But, while a lot of coaching focuses on how to send messages and be understood, fewer lessons tackle the importance of receiving the right information through listening.

The power of listening is truly underrated. When patients become frustrated and unwilling to cooperate, caregivers feel that they are not getting through to them. Caregivers tend to repeat something over and over instead of really hearing and properly understanding what a patient has to say. Consequently, they are often unsuccessful in meeting patient needs.

The problem with poor listening skills is summed up in the following quote:

"Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.” - Stephen R. Covey

When we do not listen properly, we can’t send the right information or respond accordingly. Mastering the art of listening is, therefore, worth more than gold in the caregiver-patient relationship.

If you feel that it’s a struggle to communicate with your patients, do a self-check of your listening skills first and then follow these tips:

1. Remove distractions.

When you are talking to a patient, close the door and turn off the TV, music, and anything else that shifts your attention away from what the patient is telling you. If a family member prevents you from attending to your patient effectively, politely ask to speak to the patient alone.

2. Set aside your personal problems or issues.

When your mind is somewhere else, your patient’s voice becomes background noise. It will be extremely difficult to grasp what they are trying to say. The best way to attentively listen is to put your personal worries aside and focus on the issue at hand—your client’s concerns.

3. Avoid passing judgment.

Aren’t we all guilty of this at times? A patient is telling you about a new complaint, and you decide immediately that it happened because they missed their medications a few times. So, you don’t take them seriously and only remind them to take their medications as instructed.

The result is that you failed to ask the patient for more information and did not report the new complaint to the nurse or supervisor.

4. Don’t hurry when speaking with the patient.

Even if you are pressed for time and you have a pile of tasks waiting to be accomplished, take time to let the patient speak. If they go on and on without stopping and you can’t keep up, say "Hold on, did you mean that . . .?" and give a short summary of what the patient told you.

5. Check if what you heard and understood was right.

Summarize, repeat, or clarify what the patient said. If the patient says you understood them correctly, give yourself a pat on the back for a listening job well done!

6. Read body language and gestures.

Yes, listening isn’t just a job for the ears. Part of listening is paying attention to body language.

For example, a patient who is being abused will often answer all your questions one way, but their shakiness and anxious look tell you something different. At this point, you listen with your eyes as well as your ears.

When caregiving, never underestimate the power of listening. Hear patients out and let them know they’ve been understood. It shows that you are focused on them and attentive of their needs. If you master this art, you’ll soon be able to get through to your patients more effectively!