It doesn’t matter if one is negotiating an international peace agreement, conducting an accreditation self study, giving feedback to a preceptor, or offering suggestions to a novice trainee, the communication goal is threefold: to advance the conversation, to hear and be heard accurately, and to have a functional exchange between the participants.
James Ryan, Dean of the Harvard School of Education explores how five questions — “Wait, What?” “I wonder…?” “Couldn’t we at least…?” “How can I help?” “What truly matters?” — facilitate communication and foster an inquisitive and engaged existence in his book: Wait, What? And Life’s Other Essential Questions.” Ryan writes that these questions spark meaningful conversations and contribute to a happy and fulfilling life. He explored these ideas in his commencement address delivered during the 2016 Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Presentation of Diplomas and Certificates.
Ryan’s seminal questions continued to resonate as I thought about my recent experiences at two back-to-back conferences. A common thread in both conferences was an emphasis on effective communication. The first conference was NACHC’s annual Policy and Issues Forum in Washington DC. NACHC “serves as the national health care advocacy organization for America’s medically underserved and uninsured and the community health centers that serve as their health care home…” The second conference was the Annual meeting of the Association for Specialized and Professional Accreditors (ASPA-us) in Chicago. ASPA-us “is an association of organizations that evaluate the quality of programs in higher education for more than 100 different professions and specialized disciplines – from nursing to architecture, and physical therapy to engineering.”
During the NACHC conference I was staffing our exhibit booth and connecting with passers-by. I wanted to learn more about the people attending the conference. How were they making a difference for their constituents? Where did they see opportunities for service? Of course, I wanted to see if there was a match between what we were doing and their needs. But more importantly, I wanted to understand and honor their perspective on the world of safety net healthcare services. The more I understood each person’s world view, the better I was at recognizing possibilities for providing meaningful service. Asking “I wonder if…?” or “How can we help? or “What truly matters?” sparked wonderful conversations.
Immediately after the NACHC conference, I flew to Chicago for the ASPA conference. One of the highlights was a session devoted to effective communication. We heard about various aspects of communications, ranging from the common characteristics of effective interactions to best practices for managing difficult conversations. In the wrap up, the presentations were distilled into the 3 C’s: be compassionate, have confidence, and exhibit competence. Especially with difficult conversations it is important to be compassionate, confident and competent. Compassion is expressed by acknowledging the reality of an alternative point of view. Confidence is believing in yourself and your right to have your point of view. Competence is being capable, proficient and skilled.
As I thought back about the people I met at the two conferences, I realized that the most interesting conversations occurred when variations on Ryan’s five questions were combined with the 3 C’s. I learned about a new community health center CEO’s vision to provide a vibrant workforce development pipeline in his community. There was a conversation about the challenges in meeting the urgent need for quality health care in the corrections system. And there were many more…
Then I started to think about times when I’d been a part of unsuccessful interactions and what I could have done differently. I still remember the time when I gave a presentation where I had compassion and competence, but uncertain confidence. I had a deep understanding of the alternative points of view, relevant experience in multiple settings, professional credentials and graduate degrees. What I lacked was rock-solid confidence. I’d spent days in preparation, writing and practicing the presentation. Nevertheless, I let my uncertainties interfere. The presentation was not one of my best. You know the signs: people get fidgety, they surreptitiously check their cell phones and answer emails… Luckily, compassionate, targeted and timely feedback provided me with perspective. I quickly regained my stride. It was one of those unexpected teachable moments that made me a better presenter.
Lessons learned: the three C’s, compassion, confidence and competence, make a difference. Consider Ryan’s five questions regarding your audience. Perhaps open the discussion portion of your next feedback session with “I wonder what would happen if…”
As Paul Simon sings in Bridge Over Troubled Waters:
“…Your time has come to shine.
All your dreams are on their way.
See how they shine.
If you need a friend
I’m sailing right behind.
Like a bridge over troubled water
I will ease your mind.”
Until next time, in peace and well-being,