Communication skills

Let’s talk about supporting colleagues

During the last few months, like many people, we at Enact Solutions have been following the news intently and were devastated to learn that not only are healthcare workers more at risk from Covid-19 because of their exposure levels, but that disproportionate numbers of Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) healthcare workers have died from Covid-19.

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In April 2020, a study was published in the Health Service Journal which looked at 119 NHS staff members who had died from Covid-19.

The study found that 63% of those 119 staff were of BAME background. This is despite BAME staff members making up only 21% of NHS employees.

When we were approached by an NHS Trust, asking how best to support BAME colleagues through the Covid-19 pandemic, we set to work.

We interviewed BAME staff, to better understand the emotional complexities and write authentic drama for training. We researched the complexity of organising staff rotas, with regards to people’s specialities, additional Covid-19 precautions and staff risk levels and created the following scenario: 

A black nurse has a conversation with her white supervisor. She expresses her concerns about the inequality the above study has highlighted, the increased risk to her and her family’s health and the mix of emotions she is feeling around the whole pandemic. This is juxtaposed with her love for her job, and her patients.

Delegates get to watch a difficult conversation, which has extremely high stakes and strong emotions involved. The nurse and her supervisor don’t have opposing views, but they do have different roles. Whilst staff safety is a major priority for both, the staff nurse supervisor also has to fulfil her role of creating and implementing staff rotas, so patients are properly cared for. This planning is a logistical nightmare at the best of times, let alone during a pandemic. The nurse is equally passionate about her patients being properly cared for, but needs to discuss the risk levels to her and her family and the subsequent emotion she is feeling, with her supervisor.

Through the scene, delegates learn that people often go into ‘solution mode’, ie trying to fix a problem quickly, when having difficult conversations. Whilst this is an understandable response – especially in the healthcare sector (as it’s in people’s nature to care and make things better), this response can inadvertently make some situations worse.

We find that delegates are often desperate to know what the right thing to say or do is, (again, not a bad thing), but what happens when there isn’t an easy solution? Often it’s about learning how to communicate so that people are listened to, understood, supported and valued. It’s about building strong foundations, so that dialogue can remain open in the future, so trust can be built, more conversations can happen, collaboration can begin and people can work together better. 

Human beings are social creatures at the end of the day and it’s imperative that we be able to communicate well, especially in times of change and conflict. Good communication makes for happier, healthier individuals and increased productivity at work.

We’ve had a significantly increased demand for our ‘Productive Conversations in Challenging Times’ workshop at Enact Solutions of late and no wonder… Organisations recognise these are unprecedented times and want their staff to be able to communicate potentially difficult conversations as productively as possible. 

I’ll finish with a thought, which though cliche is apt: “A problem shared is a problem halved”.

In this we realise that in order to share a problem, we must first be able to communicate it.

Happy conversing,

Jemma Houghton

This is the third and final in a series of blog posts about Productive Conversations written by Jemma Houghton, one of our Associates at Enact Solutions. She works in a range of areas including research, writing, filming and workshop consultancy. You can read Jemma’s first blog on this topic,  Let’s talk about work and the new normal, and her second blog Let’s talk about learning through practice on our site. If you’re interested you can find out more about Enact Solutions’ Products and have a look at Enact Solutions’ Events on our website. 

Let’s talk about learning through practice

My last blog was on the topic of productive conversations in challenging times and I want to continue on that theme today. Knowing what makes some conversations harder than others, is only the first step. The next step is practice! Getting better at difficult and uncomfortable conversations takes practice. Like any skill, the more you practice it, the easier it will become and the better you will be at it.

Drama-based training is a great way to help people improve their communication skills by trying out new techniques, in a realistic and safe environment. At Enact Solutions we really enjoy teaching people how to flex the way they communicate, based on the person and scenario in front of them. Our training is built on psychological models, scientific information and research, but what’s most special about it is the way we use drama.

We believe learning should be fun and interesting. Think about how children learn – through play and repetition in safe environments. The same goes for adults. Learning should never be boring. It should be stimulating and drama achieves this fantastically.

Consider for a moment why people go to the cinema, the theatre, or watch TV – because it’s entertaining! Drama is fun, educational, thought-provoking and emotive. It lifts us up, and drops us into despair. In short, drama creates moments that last in the memory; that leave you feeling like you have experienced something unique and special. 

Here at Enact, we use the power of drama to spark conversations, evoke emotions and fuel positive change.

How do we do this? Well, we research the types of challenges organisations face, then write realistic characters and scenes to bring these struggles to life. Our talented actors perform these in a range of filmed and live action material. For example, in our Productive Conversations workshop, our actors bring to life the reality of remote working; a new challenge for many of us during the pandemic. 

We show the technical issues, the isolation, the interruptions from family / housemates – essentially all the stresses and strains that working from home, during a pandemic can bring. Delegates see the impact these factors have on conversations – characters getting distracted, frustrated and being short with each other. Combine this with a potentially difficult conversation, such as furlough or missed deadlines and it’s easy to see how quickly communication can break down – especially when it’s not handled well.

When workshop attendees see themselves, their colleagues or their situations reflected in the drama, it evokes strong feelings. We’ve had delegates exclaim, “Oh I do that!” It’s these feelings, which are the perfect foundation for encouraging new ways of thinking and behaving – as explained in this brilliant short video: ‘Put Feelings First’ by Dan Heath, (co-author of ‘The Power of Moments’).

Once participants have been moved by the drama, we then use ‘stop-start’ forum theatre, to give our learners the opportunity to practice how they would handle the challenge differently. The actors replay the scene from the beginning, but this time the delegates are in control. Working with our expert facilitators, they can stop the drama when they feel there is an opportunity to change events for the better. Delegates can instruct a character to empathise with their colleague, ask an open question, or actively listen for example. They then get to watch how their changes impact the scene, for the better.

What’s the benefit of this? Well, as with any skill, practice is key! Similar to the way an athlete practices their moves to commit them to ‘muscle memory’, people must do the same for ’emotional memory’. By practising potentially challenging conversations (through ‘stop-start’ theatre), we give our learners the opportunity to develop their emotional memory, so they have the confidence and experience to handle them when they occur in real-life.

As well as emotional memory, we must also take the time to develop our listening skills, as active listening is key to holding good conversations. Julian Treasure is an incredible person to listen(!) to on the subject of listening. He’s given some great TED Talks on the topic, specifically how as a society, ‘we are losing our listening’, with how loud the world is becoming.

Through Enact’s drama, our learners recognise how distracting the everyday, undercurrent of working life sounds can be; the incessant email notifications, video and telephone calls, and interruptions from family. They see firsthand the negative impact this ‘noise’ has on good-quality, important conversations with their colleagues. We teach them how to listen more effectively, how to pay active attention to their colleagues. It’s about listening with your ears, head and heart. We all need to be heard at the end of the day…

…So let’s start listening.

Jemma Houghton

This is the second in a series of blog posts about Productive Conversations written by Jemma Houghton, one of our Associates at Enact Solutions. She works in a range of areas including research, writing, filming and workshop consultancy. You can read Jemma’s first blog on this topic,  Let’s talk about work and the new normal, on our site. You can also check out all our products and have a look at our events page.