Improve communication with these teaching strategies for the classroom

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Professional development

After reading this article, you will be able to:

  • Identify strategies for teaching communication skills
  • Develop a classroom strategy that helps to  enhance communication

Have you ever heard any of the following?

  • Did you see the e-mail that the manager just sent to all staff nurses? It really sounds as though she is lecturing us.
  • His tone of voice is so argumentative on voicemail.
  • Something needs to be done about fixing communication around here!
  • Most of us hear these kinds of statements frequently. As staff development specialists, we are often asked to fix communication problems by performing education. Of course, no one can simply fix communication problems. What we can do is offer education that helps learners to analyze the way they communicate, provide suggestions to improve communication, and show how good communication improves the work environment, including patient safety.

Selecting teaching strategies for communication

Communication skills can be taught in a variety of ways. Distance learning is an efficient, practical option; however, the ability to analyze communication using real-life examples, combined with the opportunity for immediate feedback and discussion, are assets that can be most effectively provided in a classroom setting. 

Let’s look at some options for teaching communication skills. Distance learning options include:

  • Computer-based learning (CBL): Interactive CBL allows learners to actively participate in simulation communication exercises. Learners can choose when and where learning takes place. There are limits to the types of exercises that are available and no options for immediate feedback and group discussion.
  • Case studies offered as self-learning modules: Learners can analyze real-life examples of communication at times and places convenient to them, but do not have immediate opportunities for group analysis and feedback. Such analysis can occur later in a group setting, making this a blended learning strategy.
  • DVDs: Training films offer didactic information and present scenarios. This option is convenient but does not allow for learner interaction unless a group views the DVD together or meets later for discussion. 
  • Electronic communication: The use of e-mail and chat rooms allow for short bursts of information and some electronic interaction. These options are convenient for learners and are good options when teaching about non-verbal communication.  

Distance learning is flexible and convenient, but lacks interactive analysis, discussion, and immediate feedback. Classroom education allows for all of these items, but we all know how difficult it is for learners to leave their work areas to attend education programs. However, communication is a topic that is worth conducting in classroom settings as it is the cornerstone of all healthcare activity. Here are some ideas to make the classroom option the best for teaching about communication. 

Classroom strategy 

It’s important to avoid the traditional lecture discussion format. The classroom setting should be innovative and fun. Start by briefly reviewing examples of good in-person and electronic communication. This will serve as the foundation of the group activities to come. 

Next, ask participants to walk around your organization, in pairs or individually, and identify two or more examples of good communication and two examples of poor communication. Electronic communication should be included. Participants should not look for examples on their own units or departments, since this may compromise objectivity. In fact, they should not observe communication in treatment areas since this increases the risk of a breach in confidentiality. You may want to give specific locations that are appropriate, such as areas of public access (e.g., hospital lobby, elevators, cafeteria). Give participants a specific amount of time to collect examples. 

Remind learners to pay attention to the confidentiality of communication. For example, if a visitor is asking for directions, it is probably okay to observe the interaction. It is not okay to observe an interaction concerning treatment or other issues protected by privacy laws. 

Give participants a template to follow as they observe communication. For example, when observing in-person interactions, have them answer the following questions:

  • Who is involved in the communication? Don’t use names, just general identifiers such as “two nurses,” “a nurse and a physician,”  or “a visitor and a physical therapist.” Do not give the specific location of the communication if doing so will violate confidentiality.  
  • What did the body language indicate? For example, was personal space respected? Was eye contact (if culturally appropriate) maintained? Were both people at the same eye level? Did either of them cross their arms? Body language should be carefully reviewed prior to participants leaving the classroom. You may want to give some specific information on the template. 
  • What was the emotional overtone of the communication? Did it seem cordial? Argumentative? Was either participant (or both) obviously uncomfortable with the interaction? If so, why or why not? 
  • What tone of voice was used? For example, was the interaction conducted in a loud tone of voice, indicating anger? Did the people involved speak clearly and make an effort to be understood? 

These suggestions should help you to get started when developing your own template. 

Use a template to analyze electronic communication as well. Again, learners should not share confidential information. An open e-mail sent to all hospital employees is a good candidate for analysis. Participants may use personal e-mails that they’ve received as long as confidentiality and privacy are respected. Here are some suggestions for analyzing e-mail communication:

  • Was there a greeting? Good communication mandates that we greet the person with whom we are communicating, whether in person or electronically.
  • Was there an appropriate closing? For example, did the writer close with a thank you if the communication involved a request for assistance?
  • Were capital letters used? Capital letters generally signify excitement, anger, or some other strong emotion. They can even indicate shouting. If capital letters were used, why were they used? Did they enhance or hinder the communication?
  • Were abbreviations or shorthand used? If so, was this use appropriate? For example, using  “r u” instead of “are you” is not appropriate for professional communication unless the people involved have established between themselves they are comfortable with this.
  • Did the person initiating the communication explain why he or she was sending the e-mail? Was the intent of the e-mail clear? Some people assume that whoever they are communicating with will automatically know the topic or intent of the e-mail, but many people receive dozens or hundreds of e-mails per day. 

After learners return to the classroom, spend time analyzing the communication, presenting findings, and having a group discussion. When presenting findings, learners may simulate communication using role-play or present their findings as a debate, with people arguing for and against the appropriateness of the communication. 

Learners could also be asked to complete a private analysis of some of their own communication. This is not a particularly comfortable experience, but it’s important if we are to improve our own communication skills. Most learners are amazed at the quality of communication that exists in their work settings, both good and bad.