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Jackie Sloane, MCC: How to Handle Difficult Conversations

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Re-think how you approach difficult conversations to create deeper understanding

An interview with Jenni Grover and Jackie Sloane, MCC about handling difficult conversations. Jackie is an executive coach with an extensive practice and experience teaching people how to build effective relationships. 

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Jackie Sloane, MCC is a seasoned executive coach and consultant, specializing in enhancing ability to achieve significant results and greater well-being through how clients engage others, communicate, and cultivate relationships. Jackie has over 25 years’ experience in executive coaching, leadership development, communication and transformation consulting and journalism.

She completed Mastering the Art of Professional Coaching in 1994, and has two coach certifications including the elite Master Certified Coach designation from the International Coach Federation. And she’s my personal coach—and friend.

Jenni: Hey everybody! It’s Jenni Grover from ChronicBabe.com and this is a bonus interview for the ChronicBabe 101 book, website and online community. Today I am very honored to have on the call Jackie Sloane, MCC. She’s a Chicago-based executive coach. She has worked with me as a coach; she’s also a friend. And she works with people to transform their situation.

She helps them clarify what they want to achieve, and then work on approaches for how to achieve it. She is all about action and results and I have experienced that so I know she is a great resource. Today we are going to talk a little bit about communication, communication breakdowns, and how we might flip the switch on how we talk to people about illness. Welcome, Jackie!

Jackie: Well, thank you, Jenni! That is so kind of you to invite me to participate like this.

Jenni: I’m so happy to have you. I’m lucky to have you, really. So I want to just dive right in. One of the most common issues—if not the most common issue—that I hear from my group of ChronicBabes is communication. They struggle to tell their stories, they struggle to ask for what they want, to articulate what they want in a meaningful way, in a way that gets results, and they have relationships that break down and they sometimes tell me that it’s because the communication isn’t working.

So I’m wondering if we could talk a little bit about what happens when people are feeling a communication breakdown—what kinds of things they can start to look at to maybe turn that around.

Jackie: Thank you for that question, Jenni. I think the most powerful thing a person can do when you’re having a communication breakdown is… well, there’s actually two things.

I was going to say the most powerful thing is to cultivate some compassion for yourself and the other person because the amazing thing is there’s more and more research now about compassion. When you experience compassion for yourself, and you express compassion, and when doctors express compassion for you, we actually release the brain hormone oxytocin that produces bonding. The interesting thing is, too, that when people observe people acting compassionately toward one another, even the observers start to release the oxytocin, which creates this kind of nice feeling.

So if you can cultivate some compassion for yourself, if you can get yourself into a place of compassion for you and the other person where you’re having the breakdown, it can be kind of astonishingly powerful what happens.

Now the other thing I was going to say, and as soon as I started saying compassion is the most powerful thing, I think also very important is asking “What do you want?” What do you want in this situation? And I think it’s oftentimes very common that people have not, when there’s a communication breakdown or any kind of a breakdown, people oftentimes have not clarified “What do I want here? What do I really want?”

Even sometimes when you’re frustrated, in a situation that’s frustrating what we might be drawn to do is just express our frustration. And sometimes that’s the best thing to do, but oftentimes a more powerful thing to do that would produce satisfaction is to clarify “What do I want here?” And then when you know what you want, then to look to see how can I be compassionate toward this other person that’s not doing what I want? And how can I be compassionate toward myself?

Jenni: It’s really about balancing some of the needs of the other person with your own, but not sacrificing your needs—and also not sacrificing the respect and compassion and patience you want to have for the other people you are in touch with.

Jackie: That’s right. And when I think about people who might be dealing a lot with caregivers, doctors, nurses, nurse practitioners, or nursing doctor assistants, one thing to keep in mind is—and it might be tough if you’re feeling ill or tired or beaten down—one thing to keep in mind though is their perspective.

I was just Saturday night with two of my friends who live next door, and they’re both nurses. I know one’s a nurse practitioner, one’s a documentation nurse, and I know that they are very caring people. They went into their profession because they want to take care of people. And a lot of the people who are in the healthcare profession, that’s why they are there.

And sometimes they have an awful lot of demands on them and they might miss something, they might have a bad day, they might be frustrated. So it’s oftentimes powerful to include all of that if you’re having a communication breakdown, say in a medical setting or with a caregiver, to include all that in your communication.

Perhaps they misunderstood something, perhaps they are tired, perhaps they missed something important, perhaps whatever. But that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t also be honored. So that, as you were saying Jenni, to balance those two: you deserve to be honored; your request, your needs deserve to be honored… and the other person deserves to be honored as well.

 

Jenni: Just like we would want somebody to be cool with us if we were having a bad day. We can’t expect our nurses and doctors and other healthcare providers and people in those settings to always be on point every single day 24/7 every time we encounter them. I mean, we wish they would be, but that’s not realistic.

 

Jackie: Well yeah, ideally we’d like them to be more sensitive all the time. But what I was thinking of here is that one thing you might want to do if you’re having a communication breakdown, whether it be with caregivers or your friends or your family, is think through what is it you really want to say, what would you like to say if there was no consequence? What would you really like to say if there was no consequence? And think that through first.

 

Perhaps write it out or type it out. And then take a look at, now that you’ve seen it in black and white. Take out the highly charged words, any words that are blaming or critical or any swear words, and then go ahead and start out by saying to somebody, acknowledging somebody for something you know about them. So if it’s a friend of yours, acknowledge them for who they are to you. “I know that we have been friends a long time…” Say something that is acknowledging of the other person, that’s even creating, expressing your positive feelings towards who they are. And you can use this with anybody.

 

And then once you authentically speak from your heart saying that, acknowledging them or creating an emotional connection there, then you can open up your conversation and say what you want to say. But I think this idea of coming from a space of compassion for yourself and other people and then clarifying what it is that you want here… Drafting out what you would really like to say works. You’re giving yourself a little bit of a process to organize what it is you’re looking to accomplish and say in this situation.

 

Jenni: I love the idea of process. I think when we’re sick, especially when we have chronic illness and we’re facing stuff every day—maybe we have new symptoms day after day sometimes—we start to have this feeling of urgency. So it feels like when we want to say something to someone, or when we want to request something, we need it right then. And there’s this feeling of urgency and sometimes almost panic and desperation, and I think that those feelings really hamper our efforts to communicate clearly.

 

And then we wind up being snippy or we say things that are kind of maybe thoughtless, or we come off as maybe being very demanding and we maybe don’t need to be, and maybe we just don’t know we’re being that way. It’s almost like if we have some of that process, maybe it gives us a chance to step back, take a breath, and really think it through. I know sometimes we’re in situations where we can’t necessarily do that, but if we’re talking about a relationship with a healthcare practitioner or anybody we’re close to, there’s almost never so much urgency that we can’t take even 10 minutes to think through what we want to say.

 

Jackie: Yeah, it’s very true Jenni. I think the thing is, what can happen is, if we’re frustrated and we focus on just expressing our frustration, sometimes you can kind of get into a ping pong match with somebody where you’re expressing your frustration, and they express their frustration, then it kind of gets to be like a frustration fest, rather than thinking through “What do I want here? What do I want to generate here in this conversation with this person? What do I need to take care of me?”

 

But start out with acknowledging this other person for who they are, to create this connection with this person first before you make your request, so that you have their attention.

 

Jenni: I really love that. I think a lot of people, when we’re sick for a long time, it’s like we’ve told our story so many times and people have heard us talk about being sick and it becomes kind of difficult sometimes to ask for new things that we want. Or we feel like we’re being taken as whiners or overly needy, and I think a lot of us have trouble expressing that. But I think this little bit of process that you’re talking about could be really helpful.

 

There’s something that you mentioned earlier I want to come back to. When you said when you think about how you want to speak to someone or what you really want and maybe write out what you would say and take out the blaming words… I’m wondering if you could give me some examples of some types of blaming words we might want to avoid so we can have really positive conversations.

 

Jackie: Yeah that’s a great question, thanks for that clarification Jenni. If we speak from “I,” you know, “I’m feeling uncomfortable” or “I’d really prefer that we do this” or “I want something different for dinner” or whatever it is, if we speak from “I”—what “I want,” what “I need,” what “I’m comfortable”—that’s legitimate. Nobody can argue with you that that’s not true because you’re expressing what’s so for you.

 

But where we get blaming is we can say things like “Well you always do this” and “You never do this” and “You cut me off all the time,” or whatever. All those phrases are blaming. And the other person can feel attacked and blamed and it quickly gets into a negative exchange. Whereas when you speak, if you cultivate some compassion for yourself on the other person and then speak in “I” language, what “I need,” what “I want,” what doesn’t work for me, all that is neutral. And some people might feel frustrated getting a lot of requests but that’s something to just have some space for. Generally speaking, when you don’t blame, it gives people more space to honor what you’re asking for. When you speak more from your own needs and what’s so for you, there’s less charge there.

 

Jenni: That makes a lot of sense. I think that in situations where people are talking with healthcare providers, and especially I think some of us who have been sick for a long time… I have met lots of people over the years and they have a certain kind of irritation to them, kind of an edge, when they start talking about doctors or talking to doctors. And I’ve encountered a lot of people—I have a couple people I’m thinking about right now—who just outright will say nasty things about the healthcare profession or even to their healthcare providers. I think that it’s so challenging.

 

I understand that sometimes people get really frustrated, but I feel like in those relationships, in particular, it’s so crucial that we have clear communication. Because we get into appointments and we maybe have five or 10 minutes to work on a problem and a solution with a healthcare provider, or maybe we’re in a situation that has some level of urgency to it. And we need to have clear, concise communication.

 

But I feel like I’ve encountered some people who have a real intensity to them and I’m sometimes challenged to give them advice for how they can calm that, or how they can change a little bit how they speak with their healthcare professionals to get better results. Have you thought about this at all? Is this something that you’ve encountered or do you have some words of advice for folks?

 

Jackie: Sure. I think we all have blind spots. Every single person that you will ever meet has blind spots. There are things we don’t know about ourselves that we do. Like when I was a lot younger, I would sometimes put my hand over my mouth when I was talking or I wouldn’t give people eye contact in my early twenties.

 

Part of what I do as a coach is I help people become more self-aware. So one thing would be if people would cultivate a little bit of willingness to learn about themselves, learn that there might be approaches or tones of voice or ways they’re holding themselves, or ways they’re speaking, that might not be in their best interest in terms of getting what they want in life and in a situation.

 

I had a friend say to me—she told me I rolled my eyes and I did not mean to roll my eyes; I didn’t know I did it. And she got ticked off at me. I said “I apologize, it was involuntary. I didn’t mean to do that. I didn’t mean to offend you, so I apologize.” So one thing is to be willing to notice that maybe there’s something about my approach that I could adjust a bit and get a different response or a better response. Be willing to learn that there’s perhaps another way to do things that might work better for you.

 

And pay attention to the facial expressions of people around you. How are people looking when you talk to them? What are their eyes doing, what is their facial expression doing? Pay attention to what the reaction is you’re getting from people and notice that there might be a way to consider that that reaction you’re getting from people might have something to do with how you’re approaching them.

 

So if you’re smiling at people and they’re smiling back, great! If people are starting out one way with you and then kind of shutting down, kind of getting smaller or talking more in smaller phrases, just pay attention to the reaction that you’re getting from people.

 

But I would also say that there are doctors that are abrupt; there are caregivers that need a lot of learning themselves, so you do deserve to be treated by somebody that you feel comfortable with. And yes, it is very important, I think, that you feel safe talking to your doctor, talking to your caregiver. It’s important that you have a good relationship with them because it does impact your care.

 

This whole idea of compassion and the release of oxytocin is good for your wellbeing, it’s good for your system, it’s good for your immune system to feel comfortable around the people who are taking care of you. So if you think the doctor is not serving you, then find a different doctor that will serve you better. I’ve totally done that myself. I stopped seeing a doctor I didn’t feel comfortable with and now I’m very happy with my current internal medicine doctor and I’m thrilled to have him. I think that would be another thing too, is “What’s the criteria you’re looking for?”

 

Jenni: Some people are looking for a doctor that they’re going to be able to communicate with, with a certain frequency or in a certain style, and that’s something I learned recently. I got a referral for a new doctor and in the first appointment I was really clear with them: I want to be able to reach you if there is an emergency. I don’t want to have to wait days to hear from you. I’d like to be able to send you a message. We clarified all that stuff right up front and it was really nice to hear what his boundaries were and understand them, so that I can respect them but also get my needs met for being able to reach him when I need him.

 

I loved setting that up from the very beginning. Almost all my healthcare providers I’ve had for years now, so having somebody new, it was kind of a treat to set the clock from the beginning, get that all set up. It’s nice. And it really helped with my comfort level with making requests and with telling him things. It just made things go a lot more smoothly, which is ultimately what we want.

 

Jackie, I think we could talk all day! I’m so grateful for your words of wisdom today for our folks. I think there are so many people who will benefit from what you’ve shared. I know we’ve kind of only scratched the surface; I could probably write a whole book about relationships and communication for patients but since it’s not the whole book, I’m going to wrap up our conversation for today. Were there any final thoughts you had that we should make sure we squeeze in before we go?

 

Jackie: Well, I guess I would just say to your listeners or to your readers that they deserve good healthcare. They deserve to have their requests honored, they deserve to have what they want. And to keep in mind that it’s a woman thing to not ask for what we want. There have actually been studies about this. So I invite your readers and your listeners to ask for what they want. Know what you want and ask for what you want and you’re much more likely to get it.

 

Jenni: I love it. Jackie, you’re the best. Thanks again! I hope that everybody listening has gleaned some words of wisdom here. I know I have.

 

 

Jennifer E Grover