Good customer service—which is arguably the foundation of any practice—can be simplified into two key components. The first is caring about your customer, which will guide you to make better decisions. The second is communicating well, which can change the outcome of a conversation. For better communication, follow the acronym LAER: Listen, Acknowledge, Explore, and Respond. This article will focus on acknowledge, as it tends to be the most frequently forgotten step in our fast-paced practice environments.
What is Acknowledgement?
In communication, acknowledgement is simply the step of validating the other person’s feelings. This is not to be confused with active listening, where you repeat or rephrase a sentence to demonstrate that you heard what was said. Despite reiterating the message, it does not show understanding. Acknowledgement statements, however, demonstrate understanding by picking up on the other person’s emotions and validating those feelings. Practicing acknowledgment does not mean you have to agree with the other person; however, validating his or her feelings will reduce any anger or defensiveness that might be bubbling up.
To demonstrate an acknowledgement statement, it might be helpful to use a common problem in practices that may lead to a potential conflict. In the following example, the doctor is running behind schedule and a patient is unhappy.
Patient: “I’ve been waiting 30 minutes. What’s going on?”
Typical response: “The doctor had an emergency, let me find out what’s going on.”
Acknowledgement response: “Ugh. You’ve been waiting a long time. I bet you’re getting frustrated. Can you wait a minute longer while I see what’s taking so long?”
Now that the patient’s feelings have been validated, you’ve disarmed his or her desire to continue to escalate the volume and complaint. That patient now believes you understand more than just the spoken words. Adding an “I’m sorry” will further help, but not until the acknowledgement has been made.
Why the Acknowledgement Step is Often Forgotten
In practices, most everyone is trained to solve problems. Certainly, physicians are great problem solvers. With every patient, they must quickly assess the situation and devise a plan to address the issue. The tendency of healthcare professionals to rapidly respond often leads them to skip important steps of communication to “fix” the issue. This direct approach can cause the patient to feel disrespected and unvalued, even if a perfectly fine solution is found.
What these healthcare professionals don’t realize is that the ability to thoughtfully complete the acknowledgement step before solving a problem may help them avoid at least two common communication mistakes.
Mistake #1: Assuming the patient wants you to solve the problem. Sometimes the client presenting the problem does not actually need the listener to find the solution. He or she may just be seeking validation or is blowing off steam. Have you ever said or heard someone say, “I just want to vent for a minute”?
Mistake #2: Assuming the patient doesn’t have an answer to the situation. Most people have a solution in mind before they divulge their problems. Sometimes, talking about it helps them crystallize their idea. Also, individuals may need someone who will ask a few questions to guide them in the right direction.
Essentially, the acknowledgement step helps you to pause your own thought process and ensure you are best serving the patient. It may make the immediate conversation longer, but it serves the organization better in the long run by demonstrating to patients that they are respected. In turn, you (and the practice) gain their respect and trust. This trust will enable you (and staff members) to more easily engage patients and work together to find solutions.
Create the Acknowledgement Habit
While it’s easy to recognize the benefits of acknowledgement, it’s harder to implement this communication step in the busy aesthetic medicine environment, especially when issues need to be solved quickly. To make acknowledgement a habit, here are some tactics to try.
- Add acknowledgement statements in casual conversations with family and friends. Sometimes a new communication skill feels a bit awkward. You can’t expect to immediately use a new tactic in a conflict situation; you must build the skill first. Find some safe havens to practice acknowledgement statements. Here are several sample acknowledgements from the positive perspective: “I bet that made you happy.” “Wow, you must have been thrilled with that result.” “I can tell you’re excited.”
- Name that feeling. Observe conversations of others and identify the feelings they are projecting. Remember, words are only a small percentage of what is being communicated. The rest is tone and body language. If it is a friend you are observing, ask him or her afterward if you correctly read his or her cues.
- Create a script. Find a common issue, such as the unhappy patient waiting too long, and script several different acknowledgement statements for that scenario based on different statements a patient might make. Practice saying them out loud.
- Practice with others. Find a friend/mentor/confidant and tell him or her you are working on acknowledgement statements. Ask this person to support and help you through role playing. This is important, because if you have never spoken an acknowledgement statement aloud, it is unlikely to come out naturally during a difficult conversation where you need it most.
- Teach others. Educate staff members as soon as you feel comfortable that you can demonstrate good acknowledgement statements. Using the unhappy patient scenario is a great way to start; not only do you have your statements, your staff members should have theirs, as well. You can begin learning acknowledgement statements from each other and encouraging one another to develop this important communication skill.
It’s All About Respect
Successful conversations—even those that are difficult and fraught with conflict—are the result of both sides being able to perceive the other’s perspective and talking honestly about the issue. You will know you are on the right track when you can agree upon the desired mutual outcome. Whether addressing a longer-than-expected wait time or a billing issue, both parties must show respect for one another if the conversation is to be successful. Acknowledgement is the single most important step in communicating respect and understanding of the other person’s perspective to reach a happy resolution.