The focus of my communication philosophy, paradigm and approach is to engage, to connect with others—make eye contact, read each other’s body language and invite the person to jump into the conversation. For physicians, practice managers and all healthcare workers, engaging those you serve in this direct and genuine manner was hard enough pre-COVID-19—and, certainly, it is more challenging now. But despite this challenge, more than ever, you need to build strong connections with patients, colleagues and staff. The pandemic presents new opportunities for us to engage and connect with the people we serve every day. We just have to do it a bit differently.
Convey Empathy—Even from a Distance
The degree of empathy required to be a physician leader, practice manager or healthcare communicator is very high. One of the keys to connecting and engaging in a virtual environment in the age of COVID-19 is having an even greater degree of empathy that has never been expected, required or asked of you before. You need to step out of your own shoes and try to imagine what it is going on with the person you are communicating with, while showing that you really care. Doing this requires specific techniques that we all need to practice.
Focus on the Quality of the Virtual Experience
When COVID-19 hit, most people were not prepared to have their offices turned into broadcast studios overnight. Therefore, the effectiveness of the virtual meetings was often marred by problems with technology.
For example, as a professional broadcaster, when COVID-19 hit in March, my home office environment was not optimized for a virtual experience. It has taken me some time to get the right camera, lighting, audio and Internet connection. Although I am a communication expert, I still had to make changes as I went. The quality of my programs has greatly improved since the beginning of the pandemic, through trial and error and asking others for help.
Similarly, physicians and other healthcare providers have had to quickly get used to the virtual communication tools available for telehealth visits and other types of online meetings. The following are some helpful tips to remember as you communicate virtually.
In the age of COVID-19, we need to be more present than ever before, while we are physically distanced. This sounds like a paradox, but it is not. Yes, you can close the video channel and rely on audio only, but that further isolates your patient.
You also can multitask during video and phone conferences, using the time to check your email, send a text, organize paperwork and more. But what message does it send to the person you are talking to? Make sure you give your full attention to this person, who is likely already struggling with the physical distance between you.
Make Eye Contact
Video conferencing takes some getting used to. It can be awkward to have a conversation looking at the “Brady Bunch” family view on your computer screen. But you can make the conversation more personal with one simple trick: Maintain eye contact.
To do this, do not look into the eyes of the person you are talking to. Instead, look directly into the camera on your device. Note that the camera is in a different location on your different devices—computer vs. tablet vs. phone. Learn where your camera is and engage those you are speaking to by looking into the camera—not at the person you’re talking to. This takes some getting used to, but it’s important. Remember that when you look at the person you’re talking to you aren’t making eye contact.
Ask the Right Questions
The greatest leaders ask the best questions. This skill set consists of asking probing, open-ended questions and listening effectively. For example, if you ask one of the physicians in your practice if they are having any issues with technology or telehealth, here is how that conversation is likely to go:
Do you have any problems with the technology?
Is everything working OK? Do you need any help?
No, I’m good.
Those questions are all yes or no questions—close-ended.
I have learned over many years about the importance of asking open-ended questions that force the other person to respond with details. There is a wonderful book called Change Your Questions, Change Your Life, by Marilee Adams and Marshall Goldsmith, that changed my life. I started to study the way we ask questions, with the goal of being able to get other people talking and sharing.
I understand that asking open-ended questions that probe for more details presents a bit of a conundrum for physicians and other healthcare workers. On one hand, there is serious demand to see a volume of patients to bring in revenue. Therefore, there is tremendous pressure and temptation to be more efficient and move quickly, which may prevent you from asking your patient probing questions. You may be afraid to get detailed answers, which may present new issues and challenges. But if we don’t become better at asking questions and becoming better listeners, and truly engaging and asking follow-up questions to know more, we can’t be our best.
It may take more time, but you are much more likely to provide value, solutions and options using this method of questioning. And it’s more likely that despite the difficulty of communicating remotely, your patients will feel heard, engaged, connected and cared about. Every time you feel impatient, you run the risk of losing the trust of your patients.
Seek Honest Feedback
One of the keys to being an effective digital communicator is receiving ongoing objective evaluation from someone who wants to help you be the best you can be. In these times, especially, you are fortunate if you have developed a relationship with someone who challenges you when you are not at your best and will give you constructive and meaningful feedback.
I have found that people are often reluctant to admit that they are having a problem, and sometimes, they aren’t even aware of the areas where there is room for improvement. As an example, this year, many physicians and other healthcare providers had to learn new skills very quickly, including how to conduct telehealth consultations. This is not necessarily a skill set that healthcare providers had needed in their careers, and as a result, some may not even recognize that they are not engaging and connecting with patients as well as they could be.
Taking a proactive approach to gaining feedback allows you to identify areas where additional training and development would be helpful. Invite trusted others to watch and evaluate your skills. Find out if you are making mistakes with technology or are not being as effective as you could or should be. The more you debrief and get feedback, and the more adaptive you are, the better you will get at virtual communication.
Maintain a Positive Attitude
There is no substitute for having a consistently positive attitude—regardless of how difficult things have been and may be again. I know this sounds like such a cliché, but it’s true. Having a consistently positive attitude and appreciating that we have an opportunity to serve others, even when it may not be easy, is key to effective leadership and communication. That does not mean we always bat 1000. It is easy for me to say to you, “Have a positive attitude in the midst of this pandemic.” The temptation to be negative and impatient is human and all around us every day.
I am no exception. Recently, the technology was not working for a seminar I was about to conduct. I started to get into a bad frame of mind. Nine times out of 10, this technology works really well, so the one time that it doesn’t, I needed to remind myself that if that was the worst thing to happen in my day, I would get through it.
We want everything to work perfectly every single time, but that will never happen. So when things don’t go your way, the best attitude is to be solution oriented, rather than blame oriented. That spirit is important, because having your head clear and able to think through the options in that moment, as opposed to being angry, irritated or impatient, is very helpful. These are emotions, not strategies.
During this time of isolation, social distancing and remote virtual communication, remember these basics: Convey empathy, ask open-ended questions, up the level of your technology know-how, seek honest feedback about your virtual communication skills and make the effort to stay positive. These form the foundation of effective leadership and communication in a virtual world.