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When it comes to communication challenges some of the most complicated are the technological advances in communication. Our smart phones and computers — with instant messaging, texting, and emails — are touted as a way to stay in touch. Smart, easy, accessible. Like most folks I use my smart phone to text messages as a quick way to reach people. It feels less intrusive than an outright phone call. I can send a message and cross it off my check list.  

Recently my brother and I were exchanging texts regarding plans to meet. I was certain the message I sent was perfectly clear, yet he read it and interpreted it slightly differently. It was a surprise to both of us when we realized we had miscommunicated. I went back and re-read the original text. It had the information I meant to convey but the nuances were not there. I realized that the meaning I attached to the message, which originated with my own understanding, was not clearly there. And he read the text with his own understanding of what I said. Assumptions were made on both sides. When we read or write a text message, we do so with something clear in our mind. We send the message and are confident it is read the way we intended it; which is not always the case.

The same shorthand communication can happen when we are caring for our patients and families. We know what we mean when we say something, yet the message they hear may not be the one we intended. What they hear us say is filtered by their own preconceptions. The pediatric nurse said to my grandson, “It’s going to be okay,” and she meant it. She knew she would get the IV started. She knew the antibiotics would help him. She knew all of these things. Because he was 5, he wasn’t able to understand on a deeper level. Her okay was meant to soothe him. In the same way, without intending to, we may give an abbreviated explanation to our patients and inadvertently make an assumption about their level of understanding. Or they may assume they understand your meaning and not ask for an explanation. Just as we re-read a text or an email, we can reconsider the words we use and hopefully get closer to communicating effectively.