Failure to Communicate

19 Sep

com-mu-ni-ca-tion – (noun) a process by which information is exchanged between individuals through a common system of symbols, signs, or behavior (Merriam-Webster online)

in-for-ma-tion – (noun) the communication or reception of knowledge or intelligence (Merriam-Webster online)

over-load – (verb) fill to excess so that function is impaired ( or (noun) a heavy metal rock band from Bollnas, Sweden

After yesterday’s meetings, these are the words that filled the notebook where I jot down ideas for this blog. As an informationist, I’m called upon to bring research support and knowledge management services to the research team. I’m asked to develop data dictionaries, to design a better system to request data, and to assist with systematic reviews. In all of the descriptions and definitions of an informationist, these type things fall under “knowledge management.” Along with “informationist,” KM is a trending, i.e. “hot” topic in medical libraries today. These are the new roles for librarians in clinical, academic, and research settings.

I couldn’t help but think, though, that the one thing missing in all of our talk about information is communication and so I refreshed my memory this morning by looking up each word. Since the definition of information contains communication, perhaps we can assume that it is implied. Information is what we communicate, thus they go hand-in-hand. Still, I want to think about them separately here, for I think that there are elements of good communication that I can hone to make myself a better informationist, lest we all end up here…

There are thousands of books and articles and motivational speaker websites devoted to explaining what makes a person an effective communicator. For the purposes of this post, I chose some points from a statement on doctor-patient communication that appeared in the British Medical Journal way back in 1991 (Simpson et al., Doctor-patient communication: the Toronto consensus statement, BMJ. 1991 November 30; 303(6814): 1385–1387). From this Statement I learn that active listening, empathy, and the ability to explain things clearly are all key elements of effective communication (and patient satisfaction).

So how, if in any way, might these translate into the work I’m doing trying to manage information, i.e., to facilitate better communication?

Much of these first weeks on the job are taken up with sitting in on meetings so that I can observe, and thus ultimately understand, not only the research project, but also the process(es) that are a part of it. In other words, I need to be listening – actively listening – to who and what and how the information is being shared. I need to ask questions based upon what I hear. I need to reiterate points, to ask, “Have I got that right?”

I also need to empathize with the situation. This is easy for me. I’m a fairly empathetic person by nature, but more, it’s not much of a stretch for any of us to empathize with the overwhelming sense of being crushed by a mound of information. Information overload. Communication overload. We are constantly in a state of being swamped by stuff – data, words, ideas, news, all the noise, noise, NOISE from those Kardashians down in Whoville. As I stated in last week’s post, it’s a miracle we understand anything we say to one another. It’s a miracle we can hear it amidst all of the noise. And so the skill of empathetic active listening becomes one not limited to clinicians, but to informationists, too. I need to become good at listening through the buggering noise to find the important pieces of information that need to be conveyed clearly.

And finally, I need to become skilled in explaining things. Why have I chosen these particular labels or vocabulary? Why organize things this way instead of that way? Why use this tool rather than that one? I need to be able to clearly convey my own message of what I am doing and why I’m doing it, otherwise my value to the team is severely undermined. We librarians complain a lot that people don’t know what we can and/or do do in our work. Maybe part of that reality needs to land on our own collective shoulders. Maybe we haven’t done the best job up until now communicating our skills. Not that it’s a Catch-22, but we really do need to gain communication skills so that we can communicate our librarian or informationist or knowledge management (you name it… and might the many names be part of the problem?) skills.

Lastly, my favorite line in this brief article is:

Clinical communication skills do not reliably improve from mere experience.

That’s the take-away message for me today. Clinical communication skills, librarian communication skills, informationist communication skills, just communication skills… these don’t merely come to us from experience. Like too many things in our profession, I fear, we believe we’ll gain our skills in communication simply by communicating over and over and over again. But like one of my mandolin teachers once said, “Practice does not make perfect. Practice makes permanent.” We need to learn the skills of good communication and then use them over and over. There’s a definite need we can fill here.

2 Responses to “Failure to Communicate”

  1. Judy Donn September 19, 2012 at 12:44 pm #

    Great ideas! You know we’ve started attending docs’ departmental meetings so that we can tell them what we have. What a good idea, instead or in addition, to attend a meeting just to listen and learn what they do before we jump in with our 2 cents!

  2. Christine Fleuriel September 19, 2012 at 4:18 pm #

    I particularly like the comment from your mandolin teacher. It is so true. I try to explain library stuff to people in a way that they can understand. It’s important to me that they get what I’m saying.

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