Improving doctor-patient communication! Now there’s a great idea. A recent Wall Street Journal feature article, “The Talking Cure,” (Tuesday, April 9, 2013), cites convincing data about the negative consequences when doctors fail to communicate effectively with patients.

Conversations about health issues are among the most challenging and often most avoided. Why? Because there is so much at stake, anxiety often takes over. Research shows that when doctors fail to communicate clearly, patients feel aggravated, the quality of care is impacted and costs increase along with the risk of lawsuits.

Fortunately, communication skills can be learned and medical schools, health systems, malpractice insurers and hospitals have taken note. Educational programs, such as the Four Habits model, now train medical students and veteran physicians how to communicate more effectively with patients.

The key take-away from the Wall Street article is that “communication is at the root of many health care failures and a leading culprit in rising costs.” The wake-up call for all of us is that lack of effective communication is at the root of most relationship issues, workplace politics and conflict, as well as disputes and tension in daily life.

Actually, the essential skills for communicating are quite simple yet often not easy to use in stressful situations. How and when you use them depends largely upon the nature and importance of the relationship.

Here are a few helpful tips for successful communication.

1)   Seek first to understand. This requires the patience to listen well by giving 100% of your attention and confirming your understanding of the person’s meaning.

2)   Start with the end in mind. This requires you to identify a specific and realistic outcome for a particular conversation you want to have. The result must be something within your control since you cannot direct another’s actions. [e.g., “I would like to understand your concerns about taking this medication” instead of, “You need to take this medication.”]

3)   State your message clearly. What do you wish the other person to understand (thoughts, feelings, intentions)? Anticipate the impact of your meaning and be prepared to deal appropriately with a reaction.

4)   Listen to and acknowledge the response. Understand the other person’s perspective. Stay focused on your objective and seek a mutually beneficial exchange or resolution.

The challenge of communicating effectively occurs when emotions intervene to escalate, cause defensiveness or confusion or seem threatening in some way. Keep your message clear and simple. Give attention and respect to the other person and do not make assumptions. Take care to clarify the understandings of both parties to the conversation.

Doctors are expected to diagnose and resolve problems. When they fail to understand the patient’s perspective and concerns, problems occur. The same dynamic is true of any relationship. However, in some situations there are real, measurable, tangible negative consequences when communcation fails. Unfortunately, in all relationships, ineffective and unclear communication can erode trust and respect.