Communication is the key to relationships, and relating to people well is what the best carers do
None of us were born equal, though, so some people find it easier to communicate better than others. If you’re aware that sometimes you don’t communicate with people as well as you need to, these tips are for you!
1 Find a rapport with your people
Building a rapport with the people you care for is probably the most important thing you can do to help your communication with them. Rapport building starts when you first meet, and is continual until you stop working with them. You may feel that you’re unlikely to have anything in common with the people you look after, but in the end you’re all human, and it’s pretty likely that you’ll find something. What that is will be quite different depending on them and you and the situation.
The first thing to do is to break the ice. If you’re really good at this, just a compliment on what the person is wearing, what book they’re reading, or how nice their house is may be enough.
Even if you’re quite an outgoing sort of person, you may find that the ice breaker is in fact something that you couldn’t control or didn’t think about beforehand. I wore a pair of red shoes in my first year of care work. Older ladies love red shoes! Who knew?!
In my very first week of care work, one elderly lady was quite posh, and she was also rather deaf. I speak too quickly when nervous, so we were having difficulty creating a rapport … until I knocked over her little table with 35 owl ornaments that adorned it. To my horror, everything bounced everywhere and I was so mortified I almost cried! The lady – bless her heart – told me ‘If I’m not bothered, you shouldn’t be!’ and from there we had the best relationship ever.
2 Communicate directly with your people
Direct communication means talking to someone without any other medium between you. It doesn’t mean talking to someone else about them, and it doesn’t mean asking their family questions about what they like or what they want.
If the person you are caring for is able to speak or communicate in some way that enables two-way discussion (even if it is not very adequate), it is your responsibility to try to make it work.
You may meet people who have had a stroke, those for whom English is not a first or even second language, deaf people who have never heard spoken English properly, and disabled people who have difficulty in forming certain words. Everyone prefers to be spoken to directly, and with patience if needed. It’s the least we can do to help them feel normal and sane.
One lady I used to see had difficulty remembering the name of the food that she liked. She regularly asked for rice pudding when she meant peaches and custard, and vice versa. You get a kind of feel for it when the communication isn’t what you expected, and there’s nothing wrong with saying ‘Do you mean rice pudding, or was it the peaches that you wanted?’ You might feel this is rude, but most people will appreciate the clarity.
3 Speak clearly and be straightforward
I mentioned earlier that I speak too quickly. Many people do, and unfortunately this is difficult to follow for those who are even slightly deaf, or who do not speak English as a primary language. If you’re aware that your person may have a physical or social difficulty with your brand of spoken English, it may be enough to speak that little bit more slowly and clearly. Not in an exaggerated, offensive way, but in a way that helps them understand what you’re talking about without needing assistance.
It often helps to stand directly in front of the person, facing them so that they can see your face and mouth. This is partly because sound travels as a wave, and does not travel around corners very well. This means that even if you are in the same room but have turned away, that the person may not be able to tell what you have said. It also helps them if they lip read.
Speaking louder is rarely the right thing to do. Many people object to being shouted at, even if they are hard of hearing. It’s also pretty important to be straightforward and easy to understand. For example, when you ask questions, wait for the answer rather than moving on to the next question and expecting the person to be able to answer everything at once.
4 Use your observation skills
As you get to know your people better, you may find that you realise better what difficulties they have with communication. Often the little foibles are not mentioned in the care plan, and they can make all the difference to someone.
For example, if the person you are caring for does not understand what you are talking about, they may not mention this. However, when you find out later that they didn’t do something you thought they were going to, this may flag up their lack of understanding. You may even remember then that they didn’t appear to be listening, or that their face was frowning as you spoke. Both of these may be signs that they didn’t understand you at the time.
Watching body language is not just something that is useful; it’s essential to communication. Understanding the individual person you see is extra important as different people use body language differently.
5 Be aware of individual communication needs, including social, cultural, and physical ones
Physical needs within communication are normally the most prevalent amongst older and disabled people. They may be deaf or have other sensory issues, or they may have concentration problems that make it hard for them to remember conversations – even the first part of the current conversation. Check the person’s care plan and read it thoroughly, before you go to see them for the first time. This way you can see if there are any known issues that may impair your communication efforts with them.
If you have been seeing someone for a while and find that they are getting harder to communicate with, you should report this to your supervisor, because it may indicate a worsening of a physical condition that should be noted. Because you probably see the same people every day, you are in a good position to notice this type of thing.
Sometimes people have learning difficulties that make communication quite difficult; if this is the case and it is in the person’s care plan, there may be accepted ways to communicate more effectively that have already been planned for. Working in care, whether around people’s homes or in care homes, is an immensely rewarding vocation, and being a good communicator certainly makes the job easier. If you know that you have difficulties in this area, all is not lost!
You may need to take extra care when talking to people, and look up ways in which you can improve your own communication skills. The Stonebridge Health and Social Care (Adults) Diploma (QCF) Level 3 course covers the importance of effective communication.