Top 10 Communication Tips

Communication is one of the most difficult things to be consistently successful at.  So many things play into the formula for a positive outcome. This topic has been debated as far back as biblical times.

I have been an intervenor for over 30 years, and I still have days when I go home and wonder “what the heck am I doing?!” Then, the next day I have an awesome day and think, “OK, I’m not so bad after all!!”  

I’d like to share the top ten communication tips that I have found help me the most. Keep in mind, this is how I rate them; every consumer and situation is unique and the order of importance may change each time. Treat them as guidelines, and “tweak” them as needed.

When I am researching a topic, I like to start out with the true definition of the word; because it provides a solid, credible starting place to base my opinions.

Wikipedia defines communication, as the exchange of thoughts, messages, or information, as by speech, signals, writing, or behavior. It’s derived from the Latin word “communis”, meaning to share.

Communication requires a sender, a message, and a recipient. It is complete once the receiver has understood the message of the sender.

George Bernard Shaw, the Noble Prize winning playwright said, “The single biggest problem with communication is the illusion that it has taken place”. 

Feedback is critical to effective communication between participants.

I love observing people trying to communicate with each other, to see how often they are successful or not, and how long it takes.

I overheard four men talking in a restaurant. It took one of them, four or five times telling another one, he had gone fishing at a particular lake, before the guy “got it”. That amazed me!

I was at a birthday party for a four-year-old.  When it came time to open her many gifts, she was amazing. She was patient, looked and commented on each gift as she opened it, and listened while her mom read her each card. What I found so interesting, was when she was all finished, she picked up two items and went over to her grandma; “Grandma, I got a photo album and a puppy (stuffed) for my birthday”!  Then, off she went to show her friends and play. Those two gifts are what she had retained, because that’s what was most important to her. It made me think about what our clients take away from their experience while with an intervenor.

These communication tips are not things you can learn in a day.  Read them, talk about them, practise them and eventually they will become second nature.

1.Cultural Awareness: 

Google this term and you will see how many ways culture can affect communication success. Two quick examples:

a.  Some cultures have different viewpoints on dogs; they don’t make the distinction between service dogs, pets and strays. Our clients have come across this regarding access to taxis and some small stores.

b. Something as basic as greetings, what’s acceptable?  Eye contact? Physical contact, (shaking hands, hugging)? Male and female differences.

2.Be Assertive (not aggressive): This is a necessary skill to have.

There is a fine line between assertiveness and aggression.  Definitions are helpful when trying to separate the two:

• Assertiveness is based on balance. It requires being forthright about your wants and needs while still considering the rights, needs, and wants of others.  When you are assertive, you ask for what you want but you don’t necessarily get it.

• Aggressive behavior is based on winning. It requires that you do what is in your own best interest, without regard for the rights, needs, feelings or desires of others. When you are aggressive, you take what you want regardless, and you don’t usually ask.


3.Rapport:  It’s the bond that brings people together.

• Confidentiality – mean what you say (clients will test you, to make sure they can trust you).

Stephen R. Covey, who wrote “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change” said “When the trust account is high, communication is easy, instant, and effective.”

Be prepared to earn trust and not expect it.

• Consistency – When a consumer knows what to expect from you, it creates a sense of dependability.

• Names – Whomever your consumer may be dealing with (e.g., restaurants, stores, medical apt etc.), know their names ahead of time, if possible, or find out once you arrive. 

This gives the client power of choice for service; it shows interest, enriches their experience and is the quickest way to establish a connection.

4.Preparation: There are a few things to consider.

• "Elevator Pitch" - an elevator pitch is a brief, persuasive speech that you use to spark interest or explain a concept. It should last no longer than 20 – 30 seconds. It should be interesting, memorable and succinct.

• Initial phone call (for an appointment), to introduce your role, and negotiate time appropriately.

• Strategize - ask the client how they want to approach the situation, or figure out what works best. For example, in a medical appointment, a consumer may be stressed and find it difficult to concentrate on what the doctor is telling them. It may be helpful to discuss (ahead of time), what they want to hear about or address first. Then, they feel in control and you have an environment for a positive outcome.

This is also helpful when helping a consumer structure their intervention time, to make sure their most important requests are completed.

• Environment - lighting, AC, speakers, distractions, what is happening; the client can interject and take control.

• Client's Physical Needs - mobility issues, proximity to facilities, cushions for sitting, stamina, etc.


5.Don’t Judge or Assume:   

You don’t know what someone else’s experiences have been and what their triggers might be. 

Exercise patience and observation. (This is a skill that deafblind people need as well). Two examples:

a. Many years ago, before cell phones, a senior client (that has since passed away), who was totally deafblind, was returning from Toronto by Via Train. An intervenor had assisted him to get on the train, and an intervenor was waiting in Ottawa to meet him to help him off. During the trip, he asked the server for a beer. When none came, he asked again. After a longer time, when no beer had appeared, he exclaimed “Where the hell is my beer!” Soon the train stopped and he was escorted off the train and had to walk a bit with assistance, to a waiting area. He was helped into a car, and headed out on a long drive.  To make a very long story short, by the time the intervenor caught up to him he was convinced he had been kicked off the train because he had sworn (the assumption). In reality, the train had broken down mid-trip and alternate transportation had to be arranged for everyone. The reason he had not received his beer, was because it was Election Day, and the poles had not closed!

b. This involves the same client. I received a call after hours (way before Emergency Intervenor Services J), that this client had to go to Emergency and that the ambulance had been called. I was able to get to the client's residence quickly, and could hear yelling down the hall before ever getting to the room. Once there, I observed the ambulance attendants trying to get the client onto the stretcher; he was having none of it! 

I introduced myself, and it appeared the paramedics opinion of me was about a 0 on a scale of 1-10 (the assumption). 

I asked them what they wanted the client to do. Once explained, I excused myself, stepped forward, touched the client (a two-hand manual user) with our tactile sign we had set up to use for emergencies, so he would know it was me. I let him know what he needed to do. He went from a resistant, yelling person to a complacent, cooperative patient. When I looked up, the paramedic’s mouths were still open! My value to them had gone up to a 10 and they were not letting me out of their sight. They helped me into the back of the ambulance with the client, and we were off.

Other good examples on You Tube on assumptions:

Susan Boyle (Britain’s Got Talent First Audition)

Homeless Boy Steals the Talent Show (June13/11)

Best Commercial Ever!


6.Plan “B”: Thinking on your feet! The secret, is to be prepared!

• Anticipate what might happen and plan for it.  However, when we think we have done everything right, it can still get mixed up. The following are two examples:

a. I attended a speaking engagement where the speaker was deafblind and was an ASL user. A lot of attention had been made to ensure everything was set up appropriately. However, before things could proceed, the speaker had to request changes to the AC, lighting (the projector in relation to where the interpreter was sitting), where people that needed voice over were sitting, where the interpreter was sitting for the speaker.

b. I was going to be teaching a deafblind person how to use the two-hand manual for the first time, and had put a lot of time into planning it. I had 10 lessons ready. After my first attempt, I realized very quickly that I would have to go back to the drawing board. A lot of the references I was making to explain how to make a letter, were not being understood; the client was unaware of the names for the parts of the hand. 

7.Feedback: - Stop and Check

A client will often understand the words spoken, but not the message behind them (this happens to everyone at one time or another).

Many times, we have seen two or more people talking, but they are having two separate conversations.

When something is going wrong, often word choice can be your friend. Instead of asking “What’s wrong?" or “What’s the problem?", I like to ask “What do you want to do”? or “What do you want me to do?”

Clients often don’t know how to articulate the problem or to express what is bothering them, but they can easily tell you what they want to do right then. It empowers them to take control, or have input to sort out their situation, (it relates closely with listening). I have found that this is a fast way to get back on track and make the best of things.

Suggested video on YouTube:

The Power of Words (a woman changes a blind man’s day)

8.Active Listening: (Charlie Kaufman said “Constantly talking isn’t necessarily communicating.”)

Listening is one of the most important skills you can have.  How well you listen has a major impact on your job effectiveness and on the quality of your relationships with others. Three examples follow:

a. (Listening) A client is flying to the U.S. The client and intervenor had made two trips to the airport prior to the actual departure date, to make sure they had covered everything (we had learned from previous trips) and were comfortable everything was set. On the actual day of departure, the intervenor observed the flight crew discussing whether the deafblind person would be allowed to fly. The intervenor relayed what was being discussed and the client interjected. The result, the client advocated for their rights and boarded the plane. Knowing the names, reading the body language, and timing all played into the successful outcome.

b. (Not listening) I was at a hospital surgery assignment and had done the prep with the client prior to the appointment. We were in the operating theatre and everything had been explained, confirmed etc. and the client was okay. I asked the staff if there was anything else they were going to do that needed to be explained to client – no was the response.  They did not seem concerned where I would be, however I let them know I would be at the payphones (again, before cell phones), checking my messages from the office. I had no sooner gotten into my first message, when I looked up and saw the nurse from the operating room running towards me, motioning for me to come. Long story short, they had decided to do something different than what they had explained to the client and she resisted, sat upright on the table and was yelling for her intervenor. 

I asked them what they had done differently, relayed this to the client, and once the client understood, the process could continue. I can tell you, the staff payed much more attention to where I was going to be the second time around! J

c. (Not listening) I was with a client who was waiting to go in for cataract surgery. The hospital staff had observed me working with the client and I explained my role. We were just outside the surgery theatre waiting for anesthesia. I must have asked at least three times if they had gotten all the information they needed from the client. I explained why I was asking and what the consequences would be. Again, they confirmed they had everything. So, anesthesia was administered, and about one minute later, medical staff came up and wanted some information. When they realized, the client was unable to comply (and their error), they simply turned to the intervenor for the information. I repeated my best “elevator pitch” again of my role. But it was too late, and they had to carry on. 

9.Sketch, Shade, Colour (SSC):  As quickly as you can, give the client a full sense of where they are and what is going on – a sense of the room. Often, this is done in between other things. Break it into steps, and it will make the process smooth and not rushed. I use the analogy of drawing a picture; first you make a sketch, then you shade it in and finally you add the color.

10.Eye Contact:  When you make eye contact with someone, you are telling the person you are important to me. Wherever your eyes are, that's who has control of the conversation. 

"Don't give away your eyes". Keep them on your consumer, rather than on who is speaking to them (other than the occasional glance). This makes it virtually impossible for them to direct comments to the intervenor to "speed things up", or get side tracked. It also makes it very clear to your consumer and the people you are speaking with, who the priority of this interchange is.     

Examples: (Medical appointments, Kiosks in Malls, Clerks, Airports etc.)


In closing, I would like to leave you with three last thoughts.

1.  A quick way to self-check: consider if someone were to “capture” your intervention time with a client and post it on YouTube. Would you be proud of the intervenor service you provided? (Never forget people are always watching these unique methods of communication.) 

2. Always have a Plan B (C, D…).

3. Have a sense of humour! 

Maureen O'Brien
I’ve been an Intervenor for over 30 years and I love this job as much now, as the first year I started. My experiences over the years have been primarily in the adventitious area of deafblindness.
The following are 10 observations I’ve made over the years and realize I have assimilated them into my style or approach to Intervening. 
When I meet new Intervenors to the field or have discussions with seasoned Intervenors that have questions for me, I find these ten “tips” are what I most often end up talking about and encourage people to try, for a more positive outcome for all involved.