Hearing, acknowledging, and appreciating the patient’s perspective is central to effective communication.
As a palliative care chaplain, I’ve observed and participated in many conversations between medical professionals and their patients and family. Sharing details is essential between those with knowledge of the health condition and those whom that knowledge affects. When done well, communication can be profoundly clarifying and meaningful. But when done poorly, it can be one of the greatest disservices to those hospitalized. There are three elements of communication that I’ve found essential.
The first and perhaps greatest element in the art of communication is empathy. Carl Rogers said of empathy, “To be with another in this way means for the time being you lay aside the views and values you hold for yourself in order to enter another’s world without prejudice.” We must try to understand the impact of what we’re telling our patient. Being aware that someone has hopes and fears tied to and impacted by the medical information that you share is part of empathy. True embodied empathy means hearing, acknowledging, and spending time in another’s story. Empathy reminds us that all humans are in the same boat of life with its ups and downs.
The second element in the art of communication is being able to summarize the facts and details into a big idea or core message. Above my desk is a quotation attributed to Albert Einstein: “If you cannot explain it simply then you do not understand it well enough.” Medical professionals and chaplains have in common a large text with many details and nuances. When a religious professional looks at a passage of text, a main point is essential to conveying a relatable message to the listener. Medical professionals must also find simplicity in the milieu of details. A simple and concise sentence or two can bring clarity to a conversation, whereas excessive details can distract from the main point.
Finally, an element of artistry in medical communication is the ability to align treatment to intentions and hopes. Patients seek medical treatments with certain expectations for recovery, quality of life, and healing. Acknowledging the likelihood of living with severe heart failure until their son’s wedding months in the future can be honestly communicated as low, but also align with the hope of quality time with the patient’s son for as long as possible.
These three elements are not the only gems in the art of communication but I’ve found them to be valuable.
This piece expresses the views solely of the author. It does not necessarily represent the views of any organization, including Johns Hopkins Medicine.