Communication problems

Dec. 18, 2013
Recently, I had a very unpleasant scene with a staff member. Evidently, she did not understand what I had asked her to do, and when I confronted her, she became angry and defensive.

by Dianne Glasscoe Watterson, MBA

Dear Dianne,

Recently, I had a very unpleasant scene with a staff member. Evidently, she did not understand what I had asked her to do, and when I confronted her, she became angry and defensive. This is a valuable staff member who has been with me for three years. She told me that I have ongoing problems with my communication style, whatever that means. I'm pretty direct and usually say what's on my mind. Unfortunately, I have had some problems with staff turnover in the past. The typical scenario is that I say something, the staff member starts to cry, and then she leaves, sometimes without notice. Can you give me any communication tips to improve my communication style?

– Tom, DDS

Dear Dr. Tom,

Whether you know it or not, your staff member did you a favor. She was bold enough to point out a problem that has probably contributed to your ongoing problem with staff turnover.

I believe many employers underestimate the impact of their words. Words spoken in anger or tinged with impatience can inflict wounds like arrows. After a while, the wounds might heal, but the memories that remain are like scars that never go away. Wounded staff members come to feel that you cannot be trusted. They might forgive you, but they don't easily forget. Supervisors that lead from a position of intimidation are sure to have turnover problems, as staff member loyalty and dedication are not allowed to take root and grow.

To be successful in a supervisory position, an employer has to learn to communicate in ways that do not cause wounds. Sometimes, it's not so much what is said, but rather how it is expressed. In most situations when a staff member is reduced to tears, the supervisor has used the wrong verbiage. It is true that females are emotional beings. However, maturity breeds confidence and fewer emotionalisms as a rule. You should keep this in mind when hiring.

The workplace should be a happy, low-stress, and safe environment where the focus can be on taking care of patients. When staff members feel valued and safe, they are free to go about their work without having to feel as if they have to keep their defenses on alert.

You asked for some communication tips. Here are four tips to get you started.

  1. Your staff members need to know that you care. You will never win their loyalty and dedication if you do not care about them. If you care about someone, you will not speak to her in a disrespectful, curt manner. Ask about their families; celebrate their birthdays; show concern when they are ill; take them out to lunch occasionally; always greet them cheerfully when you arrive at the office.
  2. When you need to correct something that a staff member is doing wrong, use these words: "I need your help." After you have articulated what the problem is, ask the staff member, "Is this something that you can do?"
  3. Never, under any circumstances, criticize in the hearing of others. But do offer praise in front of patients and coworkers. You cannot influence people until you get in their heart. When praise leaves, criticism moves in. Always remember: if you criticize a staff member in front of a patient, the patient will always take the side of the staff member and you become the mean boss.
  4. Always tell the truth, remembering that truth without mercy is like surgery without anesthesia.

It is possible to confront without being confrontational. Learn to pick your battles, and temper your words with concern and grace.

All the best,

Dianne Glasscoe Watterson, MBA, is a consultant, speaker, and author. She helps good practices become better through practical on-site consulting. Her book, "Manage Your Practice Well," is available at For consulting or speaking inquiries, contact Dianne at [email protected] or call her at (301) 874-5240.

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