Beyond Words: 5 Steps for Communicating Clearly

Communication, especially between a doctor and a patient, is built on trust. One surgeon shares advice on how to foster understanding in any setting.

Few things matter more to people than their health. So when it comes to conversations about sickness, diagnoses, treatment plans and more, thoughtful communication is essential. But in a culture where emojis abbreviate ideas and a fast pace is the norm, connecting with others can be difficult.

The fact is, I am not naturally a good communicator. That reality surfaced early in my medical career through patient feedback, which helped me realize that what I thought I was saying and what my patients heard were two different things. This gap can be harmful for the patient — for example, using medical jargon can prevent people from grasping their treatment options, leading them to choose a care plan that is not the best fit. As I discovered best practices and incorporated them into my work, I began to see evidence of meaningful improvements in my interactions with patients and how they understood me. I’m able to apply these lessons now in my role as a leader for comprehensive care at Dell Medical School. 

At a basic level, communication is all about relationships. It’s helpful to think of good communication as a partnership between two people who willingly take turns leading and responding. Keeping the dynamics of this partnership in mind, here are five keys to effectively communicate with anyone in any setting. 

Connect First to Establish Trust

Communication starts with establishing trust. To do that, you must genuinely care about your partner in the conversation — and show that you care. Make a personal connection and work to create a space of mutual respect where you can both be open. This needs to happen before you convey your idea or information, and certainly before you make any attempts to convince or persuade. Why should someone care about what you have to say? Give them a compelling reason to listen to you by demonstrating humility and concern. 

Be Concise

We all know the feeling of enduring a long-winded orator. The more they talk, the less we hear and retain. Deliver your message concisely. I’m not saying be curt, but choose your words carefully and avoid unnecessary elaboration. Don’t assume your partner wants to know every detail — in fact, the more details you offer, the more you run the risk of diluting the impact of your main point. By being concise, you give your listener the opportunity to ask for the details that matter to them so they can approach your message with curiosity rather than information overload. 

If you have multiple ideas to convey, consider formulating them as bullet points. Deliver these points with a pause in between — a pause long enough for your partner to seek clarification. This approach maintains that space of mutual respect by encouraging dialogue. 

Engage in Active Listening, Not Argument

After concisely sharing your message, invite questions and responses while validating your partner’s concerns. Remember, if your goal is to be understood, you also need to work to understand their viewpoint. If there is disagreement — and this one can be tough — avoid falling into the trap of arguing about who is right or wrong. The trick is to acknowledge disagreement and move forward together.

Acknowledge Their Expertise

Especially in situations where you are being relied on for your expertise, it’s easy to end up giving a monologue. But one-sided conversations are seldom persuasive or productive. If your partner feels disempowered in the conversation, they will stop listening. Engage them by acknowledging what you can learn from them. Don’t get caught up in trying to control the conversation — rather, contribute to an atmosphere where you are on equal footing.

Close Without Closing Doors

It’s important to have an exit strategy that ends the conversation on a positive note, especially if you’re engaged in an ongoing relationship and want to preserve a space of mutual respect.

If the information you’ve shared could be hard to process, consider asking to follow up in a few days after they’ve had time for information to sink in. If your partner pushes to argue rather than end the conversation, express empathy with their frustration or disappointment. This exit strategy conveys that you are, in fact, partners: “We’re not going to resolve it all today, but we will eventually.” When a conversation reaches a point that requires reflection, wrap it up with the assurance that it’s not the last word. And be sure that it’s not — resolving conflict will strengthen your relationship, which is the true goal of two-way communication.

David Ring, M.D., is an expert in the psychological determinants of health like anxiety, worry and fear. He is associate dean for Dell Medical School as well as a professor of surgery and perioperative care and psychiatry. A nationally-recognized orthopedic surgeon specializing in hand to shoulder surgery, Ring provides value-based care at UT Health Austin.