Barriers to communication

When it works well, communication helps establish trusting relationships, ensures information is passed and understood, and enriches people’s lives. But all too often good communication is hampered by barriers. This can lead to misunderstandings, resentments, frustrations and demoralisation not only for patients/clients, but also for health care staff.

We’ve seen from the previous sections the principles that underpin good communication. We also need to be aware of the things that can cause bad communication – in other words, communication barriers. Being aware of these and working with your colleagues to come up with solutions will help you to overcome them.

Communication issue

Patient/client “sensory” problems – sigh, hearing and/or speech impairment

SOLUTION: Speak slowly, listen carefully. Don’t shout to someone who has a hearing impairment – just pronounce your words clearly and make sure the person can see your lips. Use communication aids – hearing aid, Braille, written communication.

Communication issue

Patient/client confused or living with dementia

SOLUTION: Remove all distractions if possible, such as a TV playing in the corner, and try to find a quiet location where the person can focus more easily. Ask family/loved ones how they communicate with person – they are often expert in this.

Communication issue

Patient/client does not speak or understand English.

SOLUTION: Many simple needs can be defined through imitating actions – eating, drinking, and taking a short walk, for instance. More complex conversations will need the help of a trusted family member who speaks English or a translator.

Communication issue

Environment busy, noisy and lacking privacy.

SOLUTION: Many health care environments are like this: you might be in a busy hospital ward with lots of people and equipment around and noisy trolleys rattling in and out the ward, or in a GP surgery treatment room with various people interrupting while you’ll trying to speak to a patient. Many care homes and private houses can seem just as busy. Usually, however, there is a quiet space you can go to, and simple actions – turning a TV off or down, drawing curtains round the bed area, closing windows if noisy traffic or roadworks are nearby, closing the door of the treatment room – can also help.

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