Communication Skills for Physician Leaders

MAY 13, 2019
Heidi Moawad, MD
In medicine, a high level of competence has always been a minimal requirement, and a lack of knowledge and skill can make a physician completely unqualified to practice medicine. But when it comes to advancing in a medical career, communication skills can make the difference between being a leader and stagnating.

Less than stellar communication skills may not cost you your job but can make it difficult to achieve daily satisfaction and long-term career goals, especially when it comes to leadership. And even when a physician manages to rise to senior leadership based on high quality work performance, weak communication skills can leave colleagues wondering how that physician managed to get misplaced in a leadership role in the first place. practice management peers conversation listening insight conversation

The vast majority of the time communication deficits are not intentional. And most doctors aren’t completely lacking in all of these skills but may have a few gaps. There are some important strategies that can fill in the missing gaps when it comes to communication issues with colleagues, especially as you are rising in your potential role as a physician leader. 

Listening To Words 

Listening is the core of communication. Most of us have inherent biases and already think we know what others actually mean— even before hearing what they have to say. 

However, many of us overestimate our own degree of insight when it comes to reading people’s intentions. For example, if a colleague verbalizes to you that a certain plan is not the right fit, you might assume that the situation is too challenging for your colleague simply because you think it is challenging. Instead, it would make sense to ask why it isn’t a good fit before guessing the reason— your guess may be based on your own beliefs and you could be missing important facts. 

Be aware when you are filling in the blanks or reading between the lines. In fact, jumping to conclusions can make you come across as disrespectful when the person with whom you are speaking is perfectly capable of sharing their take on the situation to you. 

At the same time, the popular advice to repeat the words of others as a way demonstrate that you have heard them can come across as odd when used excessively. Echoing what you hear verbatim to assure that you have understood it can sound like you are taking notes for a legal testimony and may make colleagues suspicious of your intentions, or they may start to think you aren’t taking their ideas seriously. 

Using Your Insight 

Listening to words is important, but indeed there are times when you need to use your insight to go beyond the words you are hearing— and that is when a colleague’s actions don’t match their words. Sometimes, thinking about others’ motives can be an important aspect of communication too. When you are trying to cooperate with a colleague who repeatedly says things that do not make sense or do not match their actions, then it can be advantageous for you to explore deeper explanations for this mismatch. 

Your coworker may be unintentionally or intentionally misleading you (and others), resulting in inefficiency and frustration. Maybe your colleague is overwhelmed, embarrassed about a lack of competence, dealing with conflicting demands, or just plain dishonest.

For example, a physician may avoid referring patients to a certain clinic or testing facility. If the physician’s explanation for this doesn’t make sense, then you might not be able to count on getting a straight answer. This is when you need to try to find small areas that you can agree to compromise on, and you may need to read between the lines to search for these areas of compromise. You might provide a few options of testing that you approve of so that you can be assured of quality, while giving your physician colleague choices that he or she finds acceptable as well.

Facing Challenging Conversations 

It is true that you can hide from conflict— but communication in sticky situations is one of the big differences between a physician who is just barely holding on to a job and a doctor who is ready to take charge. 

If you oversee a provider who seems to be sabotaging another provider, you can sit back, and watch things simmer until they boil over. Or, as the leader, you can work on a solution. Nevertheless, sometimes diving right into conflict can be clumsy and isn’t always the right way to solve problems. It is perfectly fine to ask for extra time to prepare if you need a while to think but giving weak responses in awkward situations is a recipe for being seen as place holder or a figurehead at work, rather than a leader who can get things done.  

Being Responsive And Timely  

The more responsibility you have, the more people expect to be able to get ahold of you. Ironically, the best leaders tend to get back to people relatively quickly.

Whether it is by email, phone, or text, timely decisions and replies can quickly tell colleagues what you plan to do or whether you aren’t going to do what they are asking of you.

One of the recent developments that has been mentioned in professional settings is the trend of “ghosting,” which is simply not responding to a previous inquiry. While this is often the easiest approach when you feel confused at work, a non-response suggests that you are not planning to stay at your job for the long haul, and it can backfire if coworkers see you as unprepared for the responsibility of interacting at a high level. 

Takeaway

Good communication, like anything else, takes practice. And if you have spent your whole career as a physician interacting with a certain type of colleague, you might be great at that type of interaction. But as you start to take on more leadership responsibilities, you are likely to encounter new challenges when dealing with colleagues in different roles from different backgrounds than yours. 

The good news is that you can always build your interactive skills and get better and better over time. Investing your time and attention into excelling at your communication skills is a key feature of becoming an effective leader.



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