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Can communication skills be taught?

by
01 September 2010, at 12:00am

Marina Baxter communications training co-ordinator at the VDS, introduces various helpful techniques.

There  is very little doubt as to why members of the practice team should improve their communication skills: better compliance, more effective consultations for the client and animal, reduced complaints and improved animal welfare are to name but a few. 

Having ascertained why communication skills are important, it is now an established fact that communication skills are a series of learned skills that can be taught with the same intensity as other clinical subjects. 

Of course, individuals wanting to engage in this process will begin from different starting positions but for the majority of individuals who have some experience and knowledge of communication there is always something that can be added to the toolbox.  

After all, the acquisition of good communication skills has no ceiling in achievement because of the inherent complexity of the subject.

So how can individuals improve their communication skills? Although it is not a personality trait, these skills are still linked to self-esteem, individual style and our own perception of good communication. The methods used to teach this subject, therefore, need to produce an effective and long-lasting change in behaviour.      

Medical research has demonstrated that didactic teaching methods may be stimulating, promote thinking and understanding of communication but if not supplemented with other teaching methods are unlikely to lead to sustained changes in behaviour when applying these skills in practice.  

The use of trigger tapes, demonstrations, workshops, discussions and exercises are more likely to engage participants but are still removed from altering how we communicate. 

Experiential 

Alternatively, the practice team may consider experiential learning
techniques. These are usually carried out in small groups and generally speaking one learner undertakes a consultation or interaction with a simulated client/team member while the others observe. 

Participants engage in feedback about the interaction, rehearse alternative approaches or specific skills and perhaps try again in part or in full. The order of feedback is crucial and is usually elicited from the learner followed by others in the group, the simulated client and finally the facilitator.  

The role and skill of the facilitator is a key component in the process if learners are not to feel vulnerable and remain keen to participate and engage in feedback. It is also imperative that the facilitator ensures that delegates use descriptive feedback methods, otherwise the process may become judgemental and non constructive. In addition, the educational role players are trained to give feedback in three ways: in role but in a neutral position, in role but still in the emotion, and out of role.  

This type of training can also be recorded visually and there is no doubt that this provides a gold standard as it enables a more detailed analysis of the interaction.

Watching 

Using this technique means that the learner engaging with the client has an opportunity to look at his or her own performance before feeding back to the group, which is not practical when using the “fishbowl” technique. Not being able to watch oneself can also lead to individuals being highly critical about their own performance. 

The downside comes in terms of expense and time. There is considerable capital outlay for televisions, cameras and microphones. Facilitators need to be au fait with the technology, otherwise ineptitude can interfere with the training session.  Time also needs to be factored into the equation since replaying the whole tape or even sections of the recording adds considerably to the length of the session. 

Despite the potential difficulties, video recording remains an extremely valuable tool and can also be used in the clinic setting. The camera should be placed as unobtrusively as possible but should allow at least a three-quarter body shot of both the client and member of the practice team. Permission should also be obtained from clients before embarking on this route.  

Feedback can be carried out on a one-to-one basis but analysis of tapes in a small group with a trained facilitator is probably more effective unless the learner has very different needs from the rest of the practice team. 

Simulated clients are also beneficial in this setting as they can recreate the taped encounter.  This allows learners to rehearse and practise new skills and take on board feedback from the client, which is often not possible in a real encounter. 

The immediate benefits to both seasoned and new members of the practice team are clear but longer term benefits can also accrue, making it a highly efficient and fun method of enhancing and updating communication skills.  

After all, communicating effectively with your clients is probably one of the most profitable transactions individuals are likely to embark on.