Can we train people to be relational?

08th August 2015

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Every now and again, the debate of whether it’s possible to train frontline workers (most recently nurses) to act with more compassion in the line of duty pops up again. We understand that building relationships with the people they serve is an important part of their job, but we can’t understand why there seem to be such obvious and consistent failures to connect.

"Is the ability to work relationally something you either have or you don’t? Or is it something you can foster in people? It’s a big question."

From my experience, everyone who’s willing can be taught to build better connections with the people they serve. I know this because I do it every day. As a coach, I specialise in helping people communicate and connect with others. I’ve seen that when people learn how to be better listeners, empathy follows. But we can’t expect the individuals to carry the whole burden. If we want our health services, or any other public service, to act with compassion, support is needed from all sides. Sometimes workers can lead the way. But if we want results beyond a few isolated incidents, the skill of building relationships has to be valued, rewarded and encouraged at every level, especially at the very top.

Training is important, but it’s just one piece of the puzzle. To create a more  compassionate service, you need

–Messaging: It might sound silly, but management needs to be clear that people have “permission” to work relationally. This should be reflected in both words and actions. When a supervisor sees a nurse trying to work around rules and structures to fit a patient’s needs, is the supervisor’s first reaction to ask why they’ve done it, or to chastise?

–Process: Too much paperwork, huge caseloads and strict time limits mean that even if doctors and nurses wanted to take time to make human connection with a patient, they don’t realistically have that option. The #hellomynameis campaign is a step in the right direction, but there’s still plenty of work to be done.

–Culture: Are people recognised and rewarded for working relationally? Is there an emphasis on risk prevention and professionalism to the detriment of getting people the help and support they need?

We’ve been speaking about doctors and nurses here, but the same goes for pretty much all of our public services that work intensively with people. Whether they are staff or service users, it’s about putting people first, valuing their contributions, and helping them build their skills and capabilities. If you want to build a community feeling, you can’t do it alone. To expect frontline staff to do so might hint at a failure of compassion and understanding on our part. Luckily, it doesn’t have to be that way.

By Miia Chambers. MIia has over two decades of coaching experience and worked with Participle on a number of programmes.

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