How Unclear Communication Got Me In Trouble
It was my very first day of medical school. I don’t remember what I learned about medicine that day, but I remember vividly a lesson I learned about life: the value of clear communication.
My First Day of Med School
Our school had just started trying a new system of teaching, which was partly based on small groups. The way it works, is a group of about 8 medical students and a faculty facilitator would read a medical case of an imaginary patient that presented particular symptoms. The students would then recommend how this patient should be interviewed, examined, and treated and our facilitator would make sure we learned the key lessons as defined in the objectives for the case.
The first case was about a lady who came in with fever and coughing blood for 5 days.
The facilitator told us someone should go to the board to write everyone’s recommendations. Being an introvert by nature, I thought this was the easiest job to do—I knew I could write things on the board. So the first question posed was, “What do you want to ask the patient?” Students responded with different questions they wanted to ask our patient to clarify the nature of the symptoms. I wrote these on the board without any issues.
The next question was, “What examination would you like to perform on the patient?” One student said, “I would like to look in her throat.” So I wrote that on the board. Another student said, “I would like to listen to her ‘breath sounds.’” few other students agreed with him as well and the facilitator said it was a good idea. Keep in mind, at this point I had never been in medicine in my life. This was my very first day. Today as a doctor, I am very familiar with the phrase “breath sounds.” Then though, I was not. I had never heard it before!
What I actually thought the student said was “BREAST sounds.”
“Breast sounds?” I thought…that makes no sense. Even though I knew nothing about medicine, that just simply did not make any sense. I quickly imagined how a breast could have sounds. No way this is right. But then I thought, well I am new at this, maybe there is something called ‘breast sounds.’ After all, that’s what this guy said. I thought…I can’t believe I am in this predicament.” At this point, everyone was looking at me wondering why I was not writing anything on the board. I started thinking of what an idiot I’m going to look like for the rest med school.
Seconds were like eternity…
I started sweating.
So I thought, heck…I am just going to write ‘breast sounds,’ I have to write something. So I extended my hand which was slightly shaking. Then I turned to the guy who had offered the response and said to him, “Weird test. You said what?”
To my great relief, I got it then: “BREATH sounds.”
By that time, I was having symptoms of nausea and abdominal cramping!
I never volunteered to write on the board again.
Lesson for Leaders
It is not about what is said, but what is understood!
Do your people understand what you are saying? Even if they hear the correct words, they may not understand the true meaning of what you are trying to communicate.
Make your message simple and clear. Repeat it often and in different ways. Slow down and be patient with others.
Make it a priority to have clear communication.
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