The importance of communication

September 28, 2018

Communication is key to managing conflict that can hinder patient care and employee productivity.

Conflict is inevitable in any workplace, but it can be especially problematic in a medical practice. Disagreements among practice employees or between employees and patients jeopardize patient care and safety and can damage the practice’s business operations. It’s imperative healthcare professionals know how to address conflict when it arises.

“If we manage it well, it’s positive for the practice, it’s positive for the professional, and it’s positive for the patients,” says Deborah McQuilkin, DNP, MEd, associate clinical professor of nursing at the University of South Carolina, Columbia, S.C. “If you don’t handle it well, then everybody loses.”

How exactly to manage conflict that impacts the quality of patient care is the topic of the session that McQuilken and her colleague Beverly Baliko, PhD, RN, associate professor of nursing at the University of South Carolina, will present at this year’s Medical Group Management Association (MGMA) Conference in Boston. 

The key to mitigating or preventing conflict is the ability to effectively communicate, especially when the issue being discussed is particularly contentious, McQuilken says. The session will provide healthcare professionals with the knowledge and tools to converse with colleagues and patients about sensitive subjects in what McQuilken, a Southerner, refers to as “a gracious way.” 

A main topic of session will focus on what makes a conversation crucial and thus likely to lead to conflict, McQuilken says, noting that a crucial conversation can develop when emotions become high, usually as a result of varying opinions, high stakes (e.g., if the conversation is related to money), or when it’s about someone’s reputation. 

“Have you ever tried to talk to someone about [President Donald] Trump who felt very differently than you did? That’s a crucial conversation,” McQuilken says. “Or, let’s say someone at work is not competent in the area that they are trying to practice.” Other telltale signs of a crucial conversation in the making include bullying or gossiping, disrespect, power plays, status spillover, fear of releasing control, uninvited physical contact, and withering emails, among others.

During the session, McQuilken and Baliko will share six tools that healthcare professionals can use to manage a crucial conversation and even to diffuse situations before they arise. Promoting dialogue is one of these tools, McQuilken says. “You listen, listen, listen. And you encourage the other person to talk, and then you get the context. [It’s important to understand] the context of this whole situation, because it may be very different than what you think.” 

McQuilken hopes attendees walk away with ability to proactively manage situations and conversations that can be damaging to practice employees and patients. “If you do it early before things get emotional or the stakes get too high, then it’s resolved at a much lower level,” she says.

McQuilken and Baliko’s session, “Breaking the Silence: Handling Difficult Conversations,” takes place Monday from 1:30 to 2:30 p.m. at MGMA18.