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Teaching Communication Skills

It generally works best if you train for verbal and written skills separately. The reasons:

  • Verbal communication is so dependent on factors other than simple content– facial expression, attitude, tone, gestures, etc. All contribute in positive or negative ways. They’re signals that can complement or contradict what’s actually said. “I’m not angry,” he insisted, gritting his teeth.
  • Written communication is far more restricted. Sure, we talk about the ‘tone’ of a memo or an e-mail, but that’s a blunt instrument compared to what goes on between two people who interact in person. Emoticons aren’t enough.

The telephone represents a sort of middle ground. You may not be able to see one another, but both parties will pick up on verbal nuances– often subconsciously.

It doesn’t hurt to emphasize the differences between professional and personal communication. Professional communication is more likely to be:

  1. Goal or task-oriented. The idea is to accomplish something related to work through your communication, as opposed to socializing. The style or format is dictated by the task.
  2. Fact rather than emotion-based. You’re delivering information, rather than relating on an emotional level. Except for therapy, of course, but even then, there are professional requirements for that relationship. The boundaries are different.
  3. Accuracy counts more. This follows from the first two. By the way, once something is committed to print (even the electronic variety), it’s much harder to take back. Translation: exercise more care and caution in the first place.

Despite their training (or maybe because of it), therapists and other clinicians may struggle with written communication. They can fall into the trap of focusing on ‘proper’ procedure rather than clarity or impact. And of course they can overuse jargon– a major buzzkill for the rest of the world. Jargon exists as professional shorthand, but it can obscure the real meaning of a document.

How to teach better communication in a treatment setting? For the verbal sort, start with increased self-awareness. That comes with feedback– video or audio recording and playback, for instance, or in-class exercises.

The key to written communication is clarity and appropriateness to the task. This is taught through example– real-life and work-focused–  and practice. Didactic stuff is fine here, whereas it’s not very useful for improving verbal communication.