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News: “Honing Your Communication Skills Benefits Patients, Colleagues, and You”

Hull, Raymond H. PhD

doi: 10.1097/01.HJ.0000413505.24307.70

Dr. Hull is a professor of communication sciences and disorders in the School of Health Sciences, College of Health Professions, at Wichita State University, Kansas.

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Figure. i

Interpersonal communication skills, whether on a personal or professional level, are powerful attributes, influencing all aspects of our lives. This important topic, however, is seldom covered in high school or college curricula, nor is it taught well in most family settings. And it's not something that comes naturally to the majority of children and adults — it's learned and nurtured.



Where is interpersonal communication taught? It's often learned, for better or for worse, from parents and peers, even if they are poor examples. In fact, constructive interpersonal communication is generally learned from those who are, in all probability, not good at it. We learn from others by listening and imitating, attempting to win friends and influence people. Those poorly developed skills may result in negative outcomes, however.

Audiologists, in particular, must be excellent communicators when working with patients and patients' families. This includes creating an atmosphere that will result in constructive communication and imaginative ways to shape outcomes.

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Interpersonal communication occurs when two or more people interact using verbal and nonverbal behaviors, interpersonal exchanges, and actions. The intended result is an exchange of information and perhaps a change in attitudes or behaviors, with constructive resolutions through problem-solving or conflict resolution. Unpredictability, however, makes interpersonal communication particularly challenging.

Some people lack the skills for effective communication because they don't deal well with unpredictability, which may occur during any interaction. It's important to learn how to engage effectively to be productive in daily interactions with patients, colleagues, and the public.

Interpersonal communication not only involves what we say, but what we do and how we present ourselves. This may include our clothing style, body language, eye contact, and personal grooming, including hair, makeup, and hygiene. Nonverbal communication, in many instances, can be as important as verbal.

The process of interpersonal communication begins with our reactions during meetings, presentations, and interviews, among others. It involves our ability to respond effectively to questions and verbal challenges and to engage in the social interactions that occur from moment to moment. It's important to note, however, that effective interpersonal communication doesn't always mean conveying or achieving what was intended; rather, it's being able to create and convey appropriate responses, identify and explain creative, acceptable solutions, and motivate people to change. This comes through in effective verbal and nonverbal exchanges and through an atmosphere conducive to constructive communication.

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Some helpful guidelines for effective interpersonal communication during daily interactions require relational dialogue and interactive decision making.

Anticipate questions and responses before they occur.

  • Take time to consider options prior to an upcoming meeting, interview, or other interaction to avoid being caught off guard. Research the issues ahead of time, and ask those involved about their priorities or concerns.
  • Look for contradictions or gaps in logic during discussions that may assist in clarifying unresolved issues.
  • Keep your answers concise. Don't give more information than requested. People tend to continue talking after answering a question due to nervousness. A wise counselor once told me, “When you've answered a question, stop talking! Don't give more information than was asked for.”

Never appear flustered.

  • Don't look panicked or bewildered, or you'll become fair game for hazing. Maintain your poise, confidence, and serenity (not defiance or anger), giving you more time to maintain or regain your composure.
  • Appear contemplative, not puzzled, when you're searching for an appropriate response.
  • There's no shame in saying, “I don't know,” as long as it's not too frequently.
  • If you're not sure of the best response, consider saying, “That's a very good question. Let me think about it for a moment,” or “That's a valid concern, but I think we may do better if we think in terms of —.”
  • If you're unsure of a question's meaning, don't hesitate to ask someone to rephrase it. Don't jump in with an answer. You may have misinterpreted the intent, and your response may not be appropriate.

Stay calm and collected if you can't confidently answer a question.

  • Don't respond simultaneously to multiple questions that are lumped into one comprehensive question. Separate them and respond to the parts you're most comfortable with. This may help to avoid answering the uncomfortable questions.
  • Relate a complex question to a similar issue that you feel more confident addressing and speak from that vantage point.

Keep your cool!

  • Never become emotional. Work diligently to maintain an air of serenity, no matter how a comment or question affects you. The potential fallout from an emotional outpouring can be worse than providing no response at all. Always remember, “A closed mouth gathers no foot.”
  • Don't get into a shouting match over issues, no matter how emotionally, politically, or socially close they are to you. It's best not to put yourself in the uncomfortable position of apologizing later.
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Follow some important rules for resolving conflicts or that may be building as a result of interactions with patients and colleagues.

Have a sense of humor. You may make light of something that should have been taken seriously, but don't let the conflict become more serious than it deserves to be.

Shoot for a win-win situation. The goal is to resolve issues or reach an acceptable solution. A win-win requires some willingness to compromise, which is key. Ask yourself, am I resisting compromise because there are no avenues for negotiation? Am I holding out on principle, or am I just being stubborn because I don't want to lose?

Express your feelings. Verbalize your resentment. Keeping it bottled up may result in an emotional explosion, ending in a loss of credibility among your peers or patients.

Communicate clearly, directly, and openly. An important rule in business relationships: Don't expect others to read your mind because they may be incorrect.

Discuss and analyze only one point at a time. Stay on topic. Related subjects or stories detract from the discussion's real intent.

Never take a cheap shot. No hitting below the belt, and absolutely no ridiculing. This behavior goes against all acceptable rules for effective interpersonal communication.

Ask yourself if you're making a big deal about a trivial issue. If yes, figure out why and what you're really after.

If you're wrong, admit it. Sometimes an apology is all that's necessary to end a potential conflict. Don't say, however, that you're sorry or wrong. It may be more effective to say, “You know, after thinking about what you said, I've come to the conclusion that I was wrong.” An admission that you may have been wrong will only raise your standing in the eyes of others.

Timing is everything. Discuss important issues when everyone is rested or at least emotionally and mentally ready for the discussion. That time is definitely not 5 p.m. on a Friday!

Everyone fights dirty at one time or another. People say things that they regret later. Practice forgiving, forgetting, and getting over it. Starting over can go a long way toward resolving conflict.

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Nonverbal communication can significantly impact effective interpersonal communication. Nonverbal expression can be as powerful as verbal, and it's important that we recognize its effects.

Nonverbal actions can give positive or negative impressions. This involves everything from handshakes to how we sit. Nonverbal messages can enhance or diminish how we communicate. Keep in mind that positive and negative first impressions are determined within two minutes of entering a room.

Learn how to present yourself. Practice presenting yourself in a calm manner to make people feel at ease. We all know someone who has the ability to make us feel accepted and nurtured, a wonderful attribute to possess. It's not a genetic trait; it's a learned behavior that should be practiced to be effective.

Effective body language can be learned. We must strive to maintain poise to communicate effectively, using calming gestures that create a comforting atmosphere. No one else can do it for you.

Gestures are not written in stone. Some gestures can be interpreted in different ways. It's best not to overuse gestures, or expect people to understand without words to reflect meaning. Too many gestures can be distracting. Random, meaningless gestures may indicate a lack of confidence in what you're saying or a lack of control over the situation. Remember, hand gestures with palms facing up tend to give a positive, upbeat effect. Palms facing down may reflect the opposite.

Keep your distance. A comfortable distance from someone is approximately 30 inches to avoid an invasion of personal space. Too great a distance, however, may make some people feel disenfranchised. On the other hand, if we stand or sit too close, it may make some back away from the conversation.

Consider your handshake. I dread shaking hands with some people because I know it's going to hurt. A moist, limp handshake, however, is equally dreaded. Neither makes a positive impression.

Watch your stance. A closed stance conveys concern or negative feelings. A relaxed, open stance indicates comfort and the willingness to calmly communicate. Your feet should be approximately 12 inches apart and pointing forward when speaking at a meeting or conference.

Effective interpersonal communication is paramount in meetings, interviews, and presentations, when challenging policy with colleagues, or when talking with patients. Remember:

  • Present yourself with poise, confidence, and serenity. You'll more likely receive positive responses.
  • Do your best to remain calm and collected in all situations in which your position is being challenged. Smile (don't frown), and maintain poise and confidence.
  • If you're not sure how to answer a direct question, say so, but say it with confidence, not embarrassment or defiance.
  • Use charm and sensitivity, or what I call “positive vulnerability,” to make others feel at ease.
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                © 2012 Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Inc.