By: The CEH training team (Siri, Jolyon, and Andrea)

Sarah, a disability worker, sat at the kitchen table of an elderly Chinese man, Mr. Chen. Mr. Chen had mobility issues and was having difficulty getting around his home. Sarah was there to discuss his options for assistance.

“Mr. Chen, as you know, there are a number of programs available to people with mobility issues like yours,” Sarah began. “There’s the Home Care Package, which provides in-home support services, and there’s also the Commonwealth Home Support Program, which offers a range of services to help you stay independent in your own home.”

Mr. Chen nodded, but Sarah could tell that he didn’t understand. She continued, using terms like “subsidised care” and “government funding” without stopping to check if Mr. Chen understood. Mr. Chen, feeling embarrassed about not understanding, did not ask any questions, and just nodded along.

As the meeting went on, Mr. Chen became more and more confused. He didn’t understand the options Sarah was presenting, and he couldn’t bring himself to ask for clarification.

Finally, Sarah stood up to leave. “I’ll leave you with this brochure to read over and let me know what you decide, Mr. Chen,” she said, handing him a stack of papers. Mr. Chen nodded and Sarah left, but he was left confused and with a feeling of disappointment, as he was not able to make an informed decision.

We often subconsciously default to ways of communicating that we know aren’t effective, leading to misunderstandings.

Most of us know that speaking plainly and checking for clarity is good communication practice. BUT in complex interactions under time pressure, we can often revert to communication styles we know aren’t effective like the transmission theory of communication. This model describes communication as a linear process where a worker encodes a message and sends it to the client, who decodes the message and provides feedback.

As workers who know that communication and checking understanding is complex, we may still revert to using a transmission model of communication because it is familiar and a default way of thinking. However, this model assumes that communication is a one-way process and that meaning is fixed, leaving much room for misinterpretation.

The transmission model does not take into account the role of context and culture, nor does it account for the impact of nonverbal cues and emotions during a conversation. Relying solely on this model can lead to the assumption that the message has been understood, when in reality it may not have been.

So now you’re crying into your morning cappuccino, let’s unpack how you can avoid these habitual practices. So you can enjoy that cappuccino properly.

First, what doesn’t work.

  • Concepts, Acronyms and Jargon from your work. Let’s replace:
    • ‘Strengths based’ with ‘how I can help you meet your goals.’
    • ‘Commonwealth Home Support Program’ with ‘government services to help you stay independent in your own home.’
    • And ’respite’ with ‘short-term care so you can have a break.’
  • Ineffective ways of checking for understanding
    • ‘Does that make sense’, ‘Do you understand?’ are closed questions that don’t encourage useful responses.
    • Assuming what your client knows – if you don’t hear it from them, you don’t know what they understand.
    • Assuming your client has the same communication style as you – you might be a direct communicator, but is your client direct or something different?

There are more examples, but that cappuccino is getting cold, so we’ll move on to solutions (I know, I know, you’re probably not drinking a cappuccino – but it helps with the story)

3 questions to check for understanding with your clients:

  • That was a lot of information, what questions do you have?
  • What will you tell your partner/ carer when you get home?
  • What does that mean to you?

You can also try deepening understanding in these ways:

  • Explain information to your client in small chunks.
  • Ask the client to explain, or ‘teachback’ what they understood in their own words (or show).

The teach-back method is an effective way of confirming understanding. Studies show that effective use of teach-back increases client comprehension, adherence to treatment plans and can identify misunderstandings that might have gone undetected otherwise.

  • If a client and you don’t have a shared understanding, explain again.
  • Repeat the process until a shared understanding is achieved.

If you want to learn more about plain language and checking understanding:

  1. Check out our practical and informative webinar recordings on our FREE members page. You’ll find webinars on plain language communication, checking understanding and teachback and tons of useful information about working with people from other cultures and language groups.
  2. Sign up for FREE upcoming webinars
  3. Check out our well-loved eLearning Plain Language Basics which gives you guidelines and practises using plain language communication and checking understanding – for only $49.

Tune in to future blogs for more tips on using plain language in your everyday communication.