Healthcare leadership is not for the faint of heart; it takes grit, determination, patience, and ambition, not to mention a healthy dose of high-level communication skills.

However, some healthcare, medical, and nursing leaders just don’t understand how to listen; in this way, we can say that leaders who don’t really listen have truly caught the "common cold" of healthcare: a lack of understanding of the utter power of listening.

Two Ears, One Mouth

It’s been said that we have two ears and one mouth for a reason: so that we can listen twice as much as we talk. That said, in some healthcare workplaces, it can seem that leadership think they have two mouths and one ear instead; in this regard, there’s a whole lot of not listening going on.

A healthcare leader who wants to listen can begin with the simple strategy of asking open-ended questions of staff members. For example:

  • What processes do you feel are working well on our unit/in our facility?
  • If there was one thing you could change tomorrow, what would it be?
  • If you’re not feeling heard, what would you suggest we do to change that experience?
  • What issues would you most like leadership to hear and act upon?

These questions may seem deceptively simple, but that’s the point: asking questions and listening to the answers without judgment or defensiveness isn’t rocket science. Yet in the experience of many healthcare workers, very few questions of this nature are ever asked.

If leaders in medicine, nursing, and healthcare administration/management could only understand the benefits of active listening, so much could change. But if they’re not able or willing to truly listen, then all the questions in the world won’t open the doors of improved care and happier, more satisfied patients and staff. Common cold, indeed.

It’s Usually the Boss

While some healthcare workers may leave a job for better pay, hours, or benefits, there is a commonly held perception that most employees leave jobs due to poor leadership.

The phrase "people leave because of people, not the workplace or the work," can often hold true. After all, sensitive and responsive leadership can lead to a more positive workplace culture, lower attrition rates, increased patient satisfaction, and a healthier overall workplace environment. This, in turn, leads to increased staff retention, a boon for any healthcare employer with previously high rates of staff turnover.

Champions of Positive Change

The skills of active listening, emotional intelligence, relational intelligence, and communication are not terribly difficult to learn and master. Intention comes first, and that is followed by a commitment to doing the necessary work to develop those skills to a high level.

Nurses, physicians, medical assistants, and other healthcare staff members all have opinions and feelings worth hearing. For the leader who can hear those opinions and feelings, increased staff loyalty may be the happy result.

Imagine a nurse’s pleasant surprise when his manager sits him down in her office and asks several open-ended questions that simply seek understanding of that nurse’s experience. What will happen when said nurse emerges from this meeting feeling that his concerns have been noted and reflected upon?

Imagine his further surprise when a number of colleagues also have the same experience. The possibility of increased staff cohesion and teamwork likely just went up a few notches as the nurses respond positively to a manager who actually listens to their concerns and becomes a champion of positive change.

As noted above, listening is in no way rocket science, yet so many nurses and their healthcare peers feel that their voices aren’t heard and simply don’t matter. When the listening dial is turned up and healthcare leaders tune in, the common cold is closer to being cured.