New Year. New Skills.

I do not recall if it was an email or if I saw it on the ASCP website, but the byline caught my attention: New Year. New Skills. My mind quickly started racing. January marks a fresh beginning, the time to make new resolutions, the time to feel the excitement of new possibilities. 

The Issue

We are more than halfway through the month and I have yet to identify the skill I would next like to acquire. So many questions! So much to learn, so little time! How do you choose what to focus on? Where do you start? What can you manage? Is there anyone who can help or teach you? And if you are like me, you might also ask yourself, “Why do I always pile more on my plate?” Maybe this is the year you choose to learn to say no? Nah. So what’s it going to be?

The Solution

Since our lives are all different and there are millions of possible distinct scenarios, I will share what I decided to do. First, I evaluated my work-life balance and determined if I wanted to acquire a skill that would benefit my work (career and ambition) or lifestyle (health, pleasure, leisure, family) (1). I also took into consideration how much more I could fit onto my already overflowing plate.

I decided to work on something that would help me with both work and lifestyle (because who doesn’t like to maximize their return on investment?). I chose something I do not like to do, something that scares me, something I have difficulty with, something I avoid like the plague, but most importantly it’s something that I wish I could do better; a skill that I envy: having difficult conversations.

Communication is a vital component of our lives. We all communicate, but how many of us have mastered the skill of communicating? Also, there are many aspects of communication (2). Poor communication can make or break a situation or relationship. Being able to communicate well is a great skill to possess (3). Reference two provides a long list of skills that I highly recommend you also take a look at (https://www.thebalance.com/communication-skills-list-2063737). I went down the list and individually assessed which skills I feel that I do well with and which ones I do not (2). This little exercise served as a reality check as to where I stand in regard with my aptitude to communicate. I invite you to do the same. You may be surprised at what you find!

The Importance of Good Communication

As a laboratory director, many facets of my job depend on my ability to communicate well. I must communicate with clinicians, technologists, administrators, other coworkers, vendors, students, etc. Not only do I communicate with a variety of groups of people, in a multitude of different platforms (individually, small groups and meetings, or large groups; such as national conferences), but it is also important that my written, verbal, and non-verbal communication skills are clear and easily understood.

As laboratory professionals, one very important aspect of our job is to communicate critical results. It is essential that we not only relay the data, but it is equally important for us to communicate it well so that the clinician completely understands the information so that they can properly care for the patient. Moreover, we must not forget the golden rule: garbage in, garbage out. What I mean by this is that good communication should begin in the pre-analytical phase. We want the clinician to provide the laboratory with the best possible specimen so that in turn, we can provide them with the most accurate result. So how do we ensure that we obtain the best possible specimen? We communicate.

The laboratory communicates our needs to the provider in order to properly do our job. For example, we provide detailed information on how to properly collect specimens, which container type to use, how to handle the specimen, how much (volume) specimen to submit, which temperature to submit the specimen, etc. Properly communicating these details is essential.

The Difficult Conversation

As laboratory professionals, we are just one part of a larger healthcare team. If you stop to think about it, we all have to participate in difficult conversations as part of our jobs. Doctors have to tell patients that they are going to die, laboratory professionals have to tell clinicians we lost their specimen, executive administrators have to tell downstream leadership that the budget has been cut again, managers and supervisors have to tell employees they are being written up or worse. Being able to successfully have a difficult conversation would serve us all well. As such, most institutions provide classes or webinars to help employees develop this skill.

The definition of difficult is: not easily or readily done; requiring much labor, skill, or planning to be performed successfully; hard (4). Carrying out a difficult conversation with grace is an extraordinary skill that encompasses a variety of communication attributes. Regardless of the scenario, the communicator must be clear, articulate, and courteous. However, depending on the scenario, being concise, confident, strategic, diplomatic, convincing, empathetic, motivating, open-minded, and/or quick thinking may also be useful skills to possess during a difficult conversation. Other valuable skills are conflict management, being able to explain, and/or listening. 

The Conclusion

For many, the New Year marks the time to set new goals, to accept new challenges, and welcome new beginnings. Why not use this opportunity to learn a new skill? The good news is that no matter what your new skill will be, it will also benefit your health. In order to acquire a new ability, you must work to actively learn to become proficient in that ability; therefore learning a new skill will also benefit your brain function. There are many studies that demonstrate that active learning keeps the mind sharp (5). Challenging your mind improves brain function and active learning slows cognitive decline (6). If you want to be brave, then don’t only choose a skill that will be fun or helpful, but choose to learn something that also challenges you to face one of your fears. For me, I hope to learn how to master the art of having difficult conversations….successfully. In the words of Marie Curie, “Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less.”

Happy learning! Happy New Year!

 

The References

  1. Work-life Balance. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Work–life_balance. Accessed January 16, 2018.
  2. The balance. List of Communication Skills for Resumes. https://www.thebalance.com/communication-skills-list-2063737. Accessed January 16, 2018.
  3. The balance. Communication Skills for Workplace Success. https://www.thebalance.com/communication-skills-list-2063779. Accessed January, 16, 2018.
  4. com. Difficult. http://www.dictionary.com/browse/difficult. Accessed January 16, 2018.
  5. Stenger, M. 2013. New Study Shows How Active Learning Improve Cognitive Function. https://www.opencolleges.edu.au/informed/other/new-study-highlights-activities-to-improve-cognitive-function-6008/. Accessed January 17, 2018.
  6. Park, D.C., Bischof, G.N. 2013. The aging mind: neuroplasticity in response to cognitive training. Dialogues Clin Neurosci. 15(1): 109-119. PMC23576894. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3622463/. Accessed January 17, 2018.

 

Martinez Headshot-small 2017

-Raquel Martinez, PhD, D(ABMM), was named an ASCP 40 Under Forty TOP FIVE honoree for 2017. She is one of two System Directors of Clinical and Molecular Microbiology at Geisinger Health System in Danville, Pennsylvania. Her research interests focus on infectious disease diagnostics, specifically rapid molecular technologies for the detection of bloodstream and respiratory virus infections, and antimicrobial resistance, with the overall goal to improve patient outcomes.

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