Can I hear you now? 

Strengthen your listening skills to improve your effectiveness as a healthcare compliance officer  

Sharon Parsley, JD, MBA, CHC, CHRC’s writes a monthly series on compliance officer effectiveness for the YouCompli blog. This post covers different listening styles – a critical consideration for the various situations compliance officers work through.  

Wikipedia describes listening as “giving attention to sound or action.” This overly simplistic definition fails to address the inherent challenges that keep many people from being a good listener in life and, more particularly, in the workplace. The obstacles to good listening skills are many. Those include interruptions, inattention, biased or selective hearing, and focusing on your response rather than the speaker.

Most of us have had the experience of preparing for an important conversation or interaction, only to leave it feeling defeated, misunderstood and not even really heard. Can you think of a person in your life who, regardless of the topic, always manages to steer the dialogue so that it is all about him or her? Now think about the detrimental effect that feeling can have on the trust you need to build in your healthcare relationships.  

Fortunately, being a better listener is possible. In this article, we will examine a few of the main types of listening discussed in detail here 7 Types of Listening That Can Change Your Life and Work (betterup.com)

1. Discriminative Listening:  

Pay attention then adapt to your audience when speaking to healthcare leaders 

According to betterup.com, discriminative listening is a skill all humans are born with. This type of listening relies more on tone, changes in sound and other non-verbal cues. Since we all know that a substantial portion of our communication is non-verbal, successful use of discriminative listening is vital.  

Say you are conducting a one-hour live training for a large group of physicians. Ten minutes into the hour you see that most of them are glued to their cell phones or whispering to each other, and only a few appear to be giving you their full attention. This is a tough situation to find yourself in, but what would you do? Soldier on with your scripted remarks? Embarrass a member of the audience by calling him or her out?  

Or can you find a way to adapt the presentation in real-time to make it more interactive? Can you possibly take a pause or a short break and then redirect the discussion to why the topic is important to the audience and go straight to the key takeaways? There may not be a best answer here, but through discriminative listening we should at least be able to ascertain that the presentation is not hitting the mark for this audience.  

2. Sympathetic Listening 

Connect with colleagues to deepen relationships 

Betterup.com describes sympathetic listening as hearing behind the spoken words to understand the emotions of the speaker. This listening style can deepen your human connection with the speaker as she or he is more likely to feel heard, valued, and validated.  

During the early days of the pandemic, I had numerous interactions with patients and their family members. Some of those conversations were initiated due to patient safety or quality of care concerns. Others were about privacy or another compliance matter. What was universally true in every one of those conversations is that the person I was speaking with was scared. Scared that we were fighting an unseen, unknown virus with rapidly changing public health and agency guidance. Scared that they might not be able to say goodbye to their spouse of 50 years because their spouse was in the Covid ICU and had been intubated during the night. Or maybe they were scared because the discharge instructions that an exhausted ER nurse handed to the wrong patient contained sensitive information about their terminally ill child.  

Yes, I spent a lot of time listening. In many of those conversations, I was not in a position to “fix” the root issue or concern. I would like to believe, however, that in most of those cases the speaker left our interactions at least feeling heard and that their fears and concerns were also valid emotions.  

3. Empathetic Listening 

Connecting with compassion for your colleagues  

While it sounds similar to sympathetic listening, empathetic listening requires us as a listener to understand what it feels like to be in the position of the speaker. Imagine that you have a downline report who has missed an important deadline. The missed deadline reflects poorly on your entire team and your CEO has called you into a meeting to discuss the issue. Obviously, you need to have a crucial conversation with that team member.  

During the course of the conversation with your team member, you learn that her spouse lost his job a few weeks ago, and that they are caring for a parent who has Alzheimer’s disease in their home.  

Should she have alerted you to the possibility of missing a key deadline? Of course. However, you can also tell that she is frightened about now being a single income household and exhausted as she is a full-time mom, now part-time caregiver, as well as one of your trusted team members. It is possible to turn that conversation into a more open dialogue and put yourself in her shoes. Missing the deadline still needs to be addressed, but it can be done in an empathetic and compassionate way.  

4. Critical Listening  

Understand root issues during initial compliance or hotline reports 

Finally, betterup.com talks about critical listening skills. This listening skill is imperative to help us analyze complex information. Here, we apply critical thinking skills to aid us in evaluating what is being said. Critical listening is key to problem-solving and handling complex projects.  

Imagine getting a hotline phone call at 5:00 pm on Friday from an oncology research assistant. That reporter makes allegations about unsafe lab practices, discrimination, sexual harassment, and says that insurers and patients are erroneously being billed for research-related services. Whew. That is a lot to unpack.  

  • Maybe only the billing allegation falls into your purview. If so, help the caller understand the appropriate reporting channels for the other concerns.  
  • Then, focus attention on the billing issue. You know that research billing is notoriously difficult to get right. You know that your oncology department does a lot of industry sponsored phase 3 research and perhaps some phase 1 and 2 government-funded research.  
  • Maybe you also heard that the individual who was doing Medicare coverage analyses for the oncology research area was recently promoted. 

You may have no probability of resolving the concern about research billing without gathering information from a variety of organizational stakeholders. Your application of critical listening skills here, however, might help you to readily understand some possible root causes of the issue and aid you in developing an action plan to investigate the concern.  

Better listening hygiene 

We have plentiful opportunities to be good listeners every day. Most of us also have room to improve on our listening “hygiene.” We can commit to making appropriate eye contact with the speaker. We can endeavor to not judge what is being said. We can refrain from unnecessary interruption or jumping in with our story rather than letting the speaker’s words resound. We can minimize distractions by turning off email, instant messaging, and text notifications. We can attempt to create a comfortable and safe environment to have important conversations. Lastly, we can learn to be ok with silence.  

Give yourself time back to focus on relationships and listening: build a scalable, repeatable change management process to enable your team and colleagues to focus on their expertise rather than the minutia of monitoring and reading regs. 

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Sharon Parsley, JD, MBA, CHC, CHRC, is a health law attorney, compliance officer, author, speaker, investigator, and problem solver. She currently serves as the president and managing director of Quest Advisory Group, LLC. She has nearly 20 years of healthcare compliance and legal leadership experience, and she believes that mentorship and on-the-job training are critical to compliance professional success.