In my journey through the health care system I have been observing the interactions I have with “authorities.” When you become a patient, everyone who carries the key to your wellness is an authority. It is an interesting turn of events for someone like me who is accustomed to being the leader and the one that has the answers. I can learn some valuable lessons from the experience of being on the “other” side. The first and very salient lesson came in the form of an experience with language.
As coaches we use language to communicate with those we are seeking to help. The more precise our language, the more effectively we can convey our meaning to our students. Precision in our choice of words and phrases can lead to enhanced performance. But, perhaps more important, careful use of language can reduce stress and create an atmosphere of fairness and respect.
I recently experienced an example of sloppy use of language. I was in the emergency room and the attending physician told me that he was going to order a CT scan so that I wouldn’t have to wait a month for one in the outpatient system. He returned a few minutes later to say that he had spoken with radiology and that they said they couldn’t take me until “after dinner.” He would not be on shift when I had the CT so was going to leave instructions for me to be discharged immediately after the test. Instead of getting the results right away I would have to wait until an appointment five days later.
I settled in for the long wait and actually managed to fall asleep. I was surprised to be shaken awake at 2:00 pm with the news that CT was calling for me. The nurses rushed to insert an IV and escort me to radiology. At that point we all realized what had happened. Here in Maritime Canada “dinner” refers to the second meal of the day. Elsewhere in North America it refers to the third meal of the day. Both the physician and I are from outside the region. When we heard “after dinner” we assumed that the test would be done in the early evening. In fact, the staff in radiology were referring to a period in the early afternoon. If they had simply said “between 2:00 and 3:00 pm,” lots of things would have been different.
Did the imprecision in use of language make a difference? Yes and no. Workflow was affected for the nurses in the unit and I was faced with a long wait for results I could have received that afternoon. In fact, the ER doctor gave me an offhand diagnosis which was not confirmed by the results of the CT and I had to live with that more dire scenario until my next appointment. This wasn’t a life-threatening event but it added to my stress and caused me to lose some faith in the system as a whole.
In our classes, it is rare that a single instance of sloppy use of language would create more than a little stress. But continued imprecision will diminish the chances that our students will learn and improve, and increase the likelihood that they will lose confidence in us and our employers. Please give some thought to my “dinner” story the next time you describe an effort or a time interval or a sensation to your students.