Leadership insight #18 / 2022: Communicating effectively when people are vulnerable
8 December 2022
Working with vulnerability in healthcare is such an obvious issue. Of course, patients and their families often feel vulnerable as they navigate the health system. But what about in our leadership work with colleagues? Our colleagues, both peers and superiors can be vulnerable at work too – not because they are patients or dealing with a health issue per se, but because we can all be navigating emotionally difficult and stressful events at work on a daily and weekly basis. As the year comes to a close, many people are reflecting that it has been another tough year. Another year coloured by the extra demands of a continuing pandemic – a year in which we have had to re-establish a way of living and working that is part ‘going back to normal’ and part fundamentally changed’. Many people speak about continuing to feel exhausted and depleted at work as a they re-join and rebuild workforces and communities that are depleted and stretched.
Communicating with vulnerable people amplifies our need to pay attention to the fundamentals of communication to create psychological safety. It can be useful to remind ourselves of these fundamentals. The list below looks at some of these – bringing attention to what knowledge and skills we can hold in mind as we talk with our colleagues, especially around sensitive issues and difficult times.
- Framing the conversation by sharing your intentions. When we open a conversation by sharing our purpose and intentions behind the conversation it helps contain the situation and make the other person feel secure in the knowledge of what’s going to happen.
- Hi Anna, do you have a few minutes? I’m going over everyone leave requirements and I wanted to talk to you about the next couple of months and whether you are planning to take some leave?”
- Perspective taking. Perspective-taking is about thinking about the conversation from the other’s point of view. Recall what you know (and don’t know about the other person); for example, they may have family, children, relatives overseas, etc. Some of what you know might have bearing on the topic. This is a chance to check for the appropriateness and sensitivity in any topics of content you might want to bring up.
- Active Listening is about making space for the other’s contribution, by paying attention to what they say, withholding judgement, and asking clarifying questions. You can start by making sure you give the other person not just a chance to reply; but some room in the conversation to respond – this might require a significant pause and patience. Then, really listen to what they share with you. Thank them for the response. “Thank you for letting me know” “Thank you – I appreciate you sharing that with me”
- Asking and answering questions. Asking questions – to enable further understanding or obtain more information – is a way of showing that you have listened and that you are interested. Being genuinely curious and asking good questions are important skills for establishing trust and psychological safety
- Practising empathy and compassion. This is about showing your humanity – people can feel embarrassed or sensitive or uncomfortable in conversations, especially with a senior person and especially if it has bought up some personal information. So, tread carefully – we’ve all been there.
- Gratitude and optimism (without toxic positivity). You can close a conversation by thanking the person for sharing the information with you. This doesn’t need to be overdone, and it doesn’t need to be fake or disingenuous. Rather, it is a way of signalling care and consideration – and of taking the time to notice someone and their contribution to the kind of healthy and strong work culture you are trying to cultivate.
We do so much of our work together in these small conversations. These professional conversations are the stuff of relationship and culture building. Of strong collaborative and caring teams. We don’t get to create culture any other way – it’s absolutely a collection of our small and everyday actions.
Communication skills are a core part of our leadership development programs at AMA Victoria, both in the Emerging Leader, and Middle Leader, professional development programs. This year we have launched a short course in communication skills – Communication Skills for Delivering Effective Healthcare. Email us for more information at email@example.com. More information coming soon.
Dr Anna Clark (PhD)
Dr Anna Clark is AMAVs Leadership consultant, coach and educator, currently offering individual coaching for doctors and directing the AMA’s professional development programs in leadership, the Emerging Leader Program and Middle Leader Program.