A Model for Caring Communication in a Time of Constant Change

Only thing constant in life is change pic

It happened to me again and, as always, it took me a while to realize it! The “it” I’m speaking of is having the same conversation with multiple people where they are all asking and seeking answers for the same thing. After the second or third conversation, I finally realized that the advice I was sharing may be helpful to others.

In 2020, like never before, leaders in healthcare (and in countless other industries) were forced to navigate complexities, contemplate catastrophes, and repeatedly facilitate multiple change management conversations at hyper-speed. Let’s face it, and I say this lovingly, “change quickly” is something that healthcare as an industry has never done well. Most organizations grappled with these complex issues for at least ten of the past twelve months.

Multiple Executive Coaching clients have said, “On at least a weekly basis, I am forced to go to my team and share some message of a new process that I need them to implement quickly, a change in practice that we need to adopt ASAP, or a role that I need them to step into that is beyond their scope, interest, and training. I’m trying my best to be empathetic, but at the end of the day, we have no choice – I just need them to DO it! How do I have these conversations more effectively?”

My suggestions to these leaders are not rocket science but this format was helpful in highlighting something that they hadn’t thought of on their own. Here is what I have found works well for navigating these complex, constant, change management conversations:

  • Lead off with Gratitude

The key here is to be as specific as possible. Instead of “Thanks for all you do” try “I really want to thank you for the hard work that went into navigating this past weekend’s staffing schedule.”

Please hear me – my assumption is that leaders and organizations are constantly expressing appreciation to their staff and frontline managers. But, as one executive leader said, “I’m sure I could do a better job at being specific. And you’re right, I don’t start with this.”

  • Provide Clear Explanations

The message may be changing from day to day, but sharing new information with as much clarity as is available, is essential. Whenever possible, share not just the what (new process, change in practice, different language, or scripting) but also the why (the reason behind it).

  • Demonstrate Empathy

While I’m not usually much of a stickler on the order of things, it really makes a difference in this model for communication. After delivering a difficult message, finding a way to communicate genuine empathy right after it is imperative.

One leader asked, “What can I say instead of just ‘I’m sorry this sucks but we just have to do it?’”  My suggestion – try “I know that this request on top of the others we discussed last week is a lot.” Or “This one is tough and I’m with you in it.”

  • Invite feedback and questions with an Open-Ended Invitation

Again, this is where the order of these steps is important. A lot of leaders are delivering the message and then immediately asking for questions. I encourage delivering the message, letting it settle on them while empathizing, then inviting questions. This gives people time to process and formulate their questions.

When inviting feedback and questions don’t ask “Do you have any questions?” or “Do you have any concerns?” or “Let me know if you need anything from me.”  Instead try, “What questions do you have?” or “What concerns does this raise?” or “What do you need from me?”

  • End with Encouragement

This is a key care practice that I’ve coached physicians and other care team members on in their communication with patients for over a decade. Right now, in the e-visit and in-clinic Care Team Coaching that I do, I tell providers that this care practice has never been more important to their patients. The same is true for leaders.

As a leader delivering these difficult messages, this step may be the hardest. It requires digging down deep inside and summoning the energy to be a cheerleader, despite being exhausted oneself. For some, it may feel aspirational at best but it is of utmost importance. “I know this year has been hard and there’s been so much asked of each of us. But, if there is a team that can make this happen, it’s this one. I’m so thankful for each one of you and know that you can help us make these changes for our patients and staff.” 

  • Offer ways to Connect with the Care Team

Many leaders have noticed that concerns and questions don’t surface in these meetings but then there are multiple “meetings after the meeting” that they get sucked into for the rest of the day. These aren’t planned, can often take up huge chunks of time, and can lead to dissention between the staff members who did seek out additional conversations and those who did not.

My suggestion here is to conclude this initial communication and offer a time later in the day, maybe 4-5 hours later, as a brief open forum where everyone who wants can come back and pose their questions. This gives time for those quieter voices, the people who need time to process, and those who may come up with questions once they talk to peers, staff, etc. to formulate their thoughts. It also allows those who don’t need that additional time to know that it is available to them as well as those of their peers who do require it.

Leaders should also commit to summarize the additional questions and responses in an email at the end of the day or as part of some weekly communication.

I trust that this format is a helpful model as you navigate some of these difficult conversations in your role. I really would love to hear from you – What do you like about this model? Did you try it? What worked? Where did you struggle? Please do reach out and let me know!

Author (Janiece Gray) & Editor (Kevin Campbell) Notes: This blog is a bit different as I’m writing and sharing it out of my two roles – Executive Consultant with DTA Healthcare Solutions and Executive, Life, & Leadership Coach with JGray & Associates. With my co-founder at DTA, Kevin Campbell’s support we decided to publish this on both websites and share the content to each of these groups. Here’s why – while the requests for advice on navigating repeated change management conversations came out of Executive Coaching sessions, the suggestions for success also reflect a lot of the key care practices that we use in DTA’s Care Team Coaching. Plus, there are amazing healthcare leaders served by both of these companies so we thought, “Why not share this message more broadly?”

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Janiece Gray

I began my career as a social worker and later, with my Master of Health Administration (MHA), directed operations at Allina Health in Minnesota. I later directed patient experience at Allina. My background and experience give me strengths in approaching healthcare opportunities and challenges through a systems lens – with unique strengths, challenges and activation points. My experience is also informed by leadership roles leading performance improvement in patient-centered care and patient experience departments. Working in the client role with healthcare consulting firms inspired me to address some unmet needs in the industry, and to co-found DTA Healthcare Solutions. I have a Lean Six Sigma Black Belt, and find that the discipline of practice translates to healthcare work very well.

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