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Communicating with your staff.

No skill is more important to a laboratory supervisor than the ability to communicate effectively. It is the only way to insure that employees properly perform tasks for which the supervisor is accountable. Unfortunately, this important skill is difficult to master. People often don't seem able to talk with or understand each other.

You may ask a technologist to do something, either verbally or in writing, but the transmission of that instruction is not complete until the employee receives it--i.e., grasps what you mean. "I didn't understand" is one of the most costly sentences in the clinical laboratory.

It is up to the supervisor to make sure a message is understood, and that's done by establishing a dialogue with staff members. Dialogue is an interplay of thoughts, ideas, attitudes, and feelings in a free flow of conversation between two or more people.

The opposite of a dialogue is a monologue, which is authoritative in nature. A person engaged in a monologue speaks to or at someone else with almost no response on the part of the receiver to what has been said. In a dialogue, the two parties speak with each other.

Monologues can give rise to costly problems:

* Mistakes from misunderstandings. Ninety per cent of job failures are due to a brakdown in communication between people. A technologist who doesn't do what a supervisor asked may well have misunderstood the instructions. If the technologist is then taken to task for carelessness, he or she will consider the criticism unwarranted and resent it.

* Texas leaguers. In baseball, a Texas leaguer is a soft fly ball that falls safely between an infielder and an outfielder. It's not regarded as an error, but lack of hustle by either fielder can allow it to happen. With poor supervisor-staff communication, a project may fall through because everyone thinks someone else is going to do it.

Conversely, there sometimes is duplication of effort because more than one employee assumes responsibility for the same project. That's analogous to fielders coliding in pursuit of a fly ball. Even if one makes the catch, the expense can run high.

* Unmet schedules. If a laboratory section completes work assignments accurately and on time, the supervisor will receive a good performance evaluation. Timeliness is often a matter of proper scheduling, which is achieved by setting priorities and coordinating work assignments accordingly. The process requires good communication.

A laboratory supervisor who relies on dialogues instead of monologues creates a work environment that motivates the staff to discuss problems and seek solutions. In this atmosphere, all work together to chart a mutually beneficial course of action. Responsibilities are clearly identified, and interpersonal relationships are strengthened.

Several barriers make it difficult for a supervisor to talk with employees. One barrier is passivity. All of us become passive in our dialogues at some time or other because of fear. We fear becoming involved, letting others know us, or knowing others. It's death to dialogue.

We want people to like us, so we hesitate to speak up for fear of rejection and being misunderstood. We also fear appearing to be troublemakers or weak and complaining, so we suffer in passive silence rather than speak out.

The wrong attitude is another barrier. If you appear anxious to get a conversation over with, if you seem to be annoyed or distressed by the subject being discussed, then you may well be building an insurmountable communication barrier.

A third common barrier to effective dialogue is bad listening habits. Hearing is a physical act requiring no effort. Listening on the other hand calls for active mental effort. To put it another way, hearing is done with the ears, listening is done with the mind. Take the short test shown in Figure I to see whether you have any bad listening habits.

The demands of time are one more significant barrier. A technologist who feels time is wasted talking with a supervisor will contribute little information. Either party may also feel pressed to do something else.

This list of communication barriers is by no means complete. Many obstacles stand in the way of mutual understanding. That's why it's imperative to consider the following suggestions to supervisors for strengthening oral and written communications:

* Verbal following. Stay with the topic being discussed. Don't interject your views before the employee has had a chance to voice his or her own thoughts. Don't negatively evaluate responses. Be aware of the value of verbal following and committed to listening to whatever the other person has to say.

* Open-ended questions. Ask open-ended questions that start with how, why, could, or would. They tend to generate more of a response than closed-ended questions, which can be easily answered by yes or no. A closed-ended question asks: "Is the test finished yet?" An open-ended question asks: "How is that test coming along?"

* Paraphrasing. State in your own words the essence of what a staff member has just told you.

Technologist: Dr. Smith really laid into me about the turnaround time on the test results. He wasn't willing to listen to the problem I'm having with my workload.

Supervisor: Dr. Smith isn't interested in your problems. He just wants to get test results fast.

Technologist: Yes. How do you think I should handle him next time?

Good paraphrasing shows that you are tuned-in to the other person. It enhances mutual understanding and helps you to zero in on problems.

* Reflection of feelings. While paraphrasing focuses on facts, reflection is a skill that deals with feelings. You try to sense your employees' emotions, encouraging them to "get it off their chests."

Technologist: Dr. Smith really laid into me about the turnaround time on the test results. He wasn't willing to listen to the problem I'm having with my workload.

Supervisor: You feel upset and angry about the way Dr. Smith treated you. You feel it wasn't fair.

Technologist: You're right. If only I could find a way to . . .

* Summarization. Pull together, condense, and clarify the main points communicated to you. This demonstrates your understanding of the situation to both you and your staff. A summary statement might start off like this: "What I heard you saying these last few minutes is that . . ." or "As I understand it, you think that . . ."

Now let's take a look at written communication skills. To be precise on paper requires going beyond a first draft to rewriting, reorganizing, consolidating, and more rewriting. Here's a five-step process that can help you hone your writing skills.

Step one. Write the complete message as quickly as possible. Just get it down on paper without worrying about how clear it is.

Step two. Read what you have written and determine the purpose of the message by listing three or four main points. A message about staff meetings, for example, may be broken down into the following:

1. More participation at staff meetings.

2. Read the agenda in advance

3. Come to meetings with thought-out opinions and ideas.

Step three. Decide what to write by answering six basic reportorial questions: who, what, when, where, why, and how. The answers summarize the complete message.

Who? All staff members

What? Prepare for meetings

When? On receipt of the meeting agenda.

Where? Anyplace you won't be interrupted

Why? Give thought-out opinions and ideas

How? Put your opinions and ideas in writing

Step four. Simplify. Use a sharp blue pencil. Cross out unnecessary words. Substitute simple single-syllable words for complex multisyllabic words. Break up long compound sentences into shorter, simpler sentences.

Step five. Review what you have written to make sure that the purpose of your communication has been clearly and completely covered.

If you apply these guidelines, you should be able to communicate more clearly and effectively with your staff. Your reward will be stronger work relationships and mutual understanding.
COPYRIGHT 1985 Nelson Publishing
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Copyright 1985 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Roseman, Ed
Publication:Medical Laboratory Observer
Date:Sep 1, 1985
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