Life is a learning curve. From the first moments a baby’s eyes can focus it absorbs hours and hours of information, quickly learning to smile in response to a smile and for months beforehand picking up aural signals in the womb. From the first gestures and grunts of Neanderthal man to the impossibly large number of words in the English language today, to non-verbal cues and simple road signs, communication forms the very basis of human existence; the ability to absorb and share information.
As long as any human groups have existed, there have been members of the group who feel that communication from the management could be better. It’s a widely recognised fact that in virtually every organisation of any size, when anonymous surveys are commissioned, the Number 1 gripe is the quality of communication or lack thereof. Indeed, if archaeologists were to uncover some ancient papyrus “Slave Satisfaction Surveys” from the Valley of the Kings, above the whipping and long working hours would come “Pharaoh’s inability to convey his / her pyramid vision clearly” on the list of top beefs.
So much communication relies on the correct interpretation of language. In my career as a teacher, I probably didn’t truly appreciate the power that words can have on everyone, but especially on children, until I’d been in the classroom for a few years; as I became more experienced I considered my words far more carefully, particularly when frustrated. Growing up in Catholic education you are exposed to all manner of uncommon language from an early age, often joining in with prayers without truly understanding or totally misinterpreting the words. As a child I was once told that purgatory was God’s waiting room and for years I pictured a doctor’s style surgery with pews and hymn books in place of chairs and magazines and a big door with “HEAVEN” written on it in the corner.
A couple of great examples of misinterpretation spring to mind from the last few years and on both occasions I was absolutely halted in my tracks….
In my first school, we had a statue of the Virgin Mary on a plinth just inside the main entrance where baskets of prayers and intentions would be placed through the year. One day, without explanation, a small bunch of 3 grapes appeared at Mary’s feet during the lunch hour. Just three. Nothing else. We moved the grapes in the interests of hygiene and didn’t think much more of it until the next day when the same thing happened, this time with just 2 grapes. I took the grapes to the staffroom and immediately theories abounded – a sign, perhaps? A miracle? Surely not, although the school was called the Immaculate Heart of Mary. Determined to get to the bottom of the mystery, I ate my lunch the following day sitting just around the corner within sight of the statue. Shortly after the youngest children in the school had finished eating, a 6 year old girl strode over towards Mary and deposited a handful of grapes on the plinth. Quickly I put down my sandwich and went to intercept the little grocer. I crouched down beside her and asked why, apart from being very kind, she’d been giving Mary grapes. Without missing a beat the child screwed up her eyes, joined her hands in prayer and shouted, “Hail Mary, full of grapes, the Lord is with thee,”. I’ve never laughed so hard and spent 10 minutes trying to explain the meaning of the prayer, wholly inadequately and with some discomfort at my own shortcomings as a teacher. We used the example in training to highlight the number of assumptions we make as adults. And don’t get me started on Assumption….
Last year, a newly qualified teacher brought a child and his work to me. The teacher was physically crying with laughter and the boy was smiling bashfully as he handed over his RE book. He was 7 years old and the standard his work was impeccable – beautifully presented and well written. I started to read the work from that day; a thinking cloud answering the question “What is God like?”.
Around the cloud the young man had written, amongst other things, “God’s name is Harold.”
“That’s an interesting idea,” I chuckled, “Where did you get that from?”
“Our Father who art in heaven, Harold be thy name,” came the reply. Absolutely brilliant.
In medicine, the amount of learning that a Doctor has to embed in their brain is staggering and rather like Catholicism, it has a language all of its own. Just looking at the text books used by family and friends to revise for single exams is enough to convince me that it takes a special kind of mind to become a medic; a focused, logical mind totally unlike mine. The comedian Billy Bailey once said he has a butterfly mind and I can relate to that perfectly; grey cells flitting from one idea to the next.
Communication is a cornerstone of good medical practice and it takes a high degree of skill to explain complex medical principles in terms that anyone can understand. Not every Doctor is accomplished in this area whereas some are superb. I actively seek to gain knowledge about my condition and treatment but sometimes it’s just too much to process and I’ve often been left dazed and confused following a discussion with my Consultants, butterfly mind racing. What I have learned though, is that Doctors will always make time to explain further if you ask because communication is a two way street - you just have to ask. I’m incredibly fortunate to have a number of close family members who are Doctors and I can pick up the phone any time I need to gain clarification or dispel a fear. But what about the vast majority of people who don’t have that luxury – how can things improve for them?
Kate Granger is a spectacular person. She’s one of my heroes and she may well become one of yours. Stupidly I never took the opportunity to say so when I saw her regularly in the Ambulatory Care unit at Jimmy’s – a regretful failure to communicate on my part. Google her name and you can read reams about her.
A Doctor in elderly care, at 29 she was diagnosed with sarcoma – a rare muscle and bone cancer – and later told that the condition was terminal. The Doctor who delivered this news did not even look her in the eye. For many people, receiving this kind of news would cause them to crumble and if you read Kate’s blog, you’ll find that there were moments of desolation before she gained the strength a determination to fight. I can relate very closely to this after being told that my treatment options were nearly exhausted- the fear is paralysing. Out of a terrible experience, Kate made it her aim to highlight the importance of good, compassionate communication across the NHS in order to fulfil the basic human need to understand and be understood.
Her campaign is based on the Twitter hashtag #HelloMyNameIs and it’s had a massive impact in Jimmy’s already with everyone wearing clear name badges and introducing themselves by name. It makes such a difference and generates an instant moment of communication upon which trust can be built. What a magnificent triumph in the face of unthinkable adversity. My name is Mark and I think some people were born to make a difference - people like Kate.
My future remains uncertain but I would like to communicate very clearly that much like Kate, I will never give up.
Follow Kate on Twitter @GrangerKate or Google her – she’s all over it!
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