Communicating in the Age of Social Distancing

communication and social distance

Don’t shake hands or touch each other.

Keep six feet between yourself and other people.

Be sure to wear a mask (and gown and gloves and goggles) in patient rooms.

Minimize social contact.

It’s hard to imagine a situation less conducive to communication and engagement than the current COVID-19 pandemic and the social distancing we’ve had to embrace as a result. But while supporting client engagement and communication in this environment is surely challenging, it’s not impossible.

Maximize Your Verbal Communication

Whether you’re communicating with a patient via a platform like Telehealth Virtual Visits or from behind a surgical mask, be sure to make the most of the communication tools you still have access to:

  • Slow down—Speaking at a slightly slower rate gives your patient additional time to process the information you’re providing. This is especially important in situations when many of the other cues we’re used to using—such as facial expressions, which might be covered by a mask—aren’t available. A slower rate also helps during teleconferencing with colleagues or in telehealth sessions with patients in case synchronization errors occur between audio and video feeds.
  • Articulate clearly—Precise articulation is always important to communication, but it is particularly important when other cues like facial expression or gestures aren’t necessarily available.
  • Maintain eye contact—It’s easy to get distracted when communicating via video or teleconference, but when you’re on screen, be sure to look at the camera and not away at whatever else might be going on in your environment. When others are on screen, maintain eye contact with them as much as possible, too. Maintaining eye contact when you’re covered in personal protective equipment (PPE) like goggles and masks will help your patient feel connected to you and your message.
  • Use prosody and intonation—Voice is an important tool in communication. Be sure to keep your voice animated in order to keep your listener’s attention on you. Prosody communicates a great deal of meaning too. Think about the difference between a hot dog (which you might want for lunch) and a hot dog (which you definitely wouldn’t want to eat!). The difference is emphasis, and we can use prosodic emphasis to convey meaning and call our listener’s attention to whatever aspect of our message we want to highlight.
  • Minimize distractions—Easy to say but hard to do, right? To the extent that you can, reduce potential distractors around you so that your communication partner (or partners) can focus on you and your message. Find a quiet place to do your teleconferencing so that background noise is at a minimum. If you are in the patient’s room, turn off the TV and anything else that might be competing with your communication with the patient.
  • Simplify your message—Resist the urge to use long explanations and descriptions. Be direct and provide as much redundancy in your message as you can. Use additional visual cues or materials whenever possible to enhance your message.

Minimize Use of Single Modality Communication Tools

Emails, texts, and chat are ubiquitous in our society and are undoubtedly helpful communication tools, but they are limited by a lack of context. No matter how many emojis you use, it is difficult to communicate complex content, emotion, or humor via typed words alone.

Think about what you want to communicate. Are you providing a list of home exercises for your patient to complete? Are you setting up a time for a telehealth e-visit? When the message is straightforward, an email or text is a perfectly appropriate (and efficient) form of communication. But when the message is more complex or requires more interaction, it is better to add voice or video.

To avoid miscommunication, pick up the phone or video chat for those conversations that require more context or emotional connection.

Remember to Relax

You know how to communicate with people, and you have been doing it successfully for a long time. While you may be using new tools and you may be communicating in difficult situations, communication is still communication. It’s a dynamic process that happens organically for the most part, so let it happen.

As always, listen to your patients and help them to hear you, and you’ll be just fine.