What coronavirus contact tracing can teach us about communication

Not one to miss the opportunity to state the obvious but we’re currently living through a coronavirus pandemic. We’re learning new phrases – social distancing for example, I’m sure there weren’t many people who knew what that was a few months ago and now we’re living it! And we’re all having to learn about the changes that makes to the ways we’re communicating. Contact tracer is another example, I for one had no idea that was a job or what a contact tracer would do. Turns out that contact tracers have been around for years being used for cases of TB and the Ebola outbreak a few years back.

I thought about what this  job entails, calling people you’ve never met and asking them to isolate themselves, potentially away from their family and friends. Talking to them about how they are feeling, possibly talking about private medical issues and needing them to open up to you. It occurred to me that tracers are going to need excellent communication skills. Imagine the training needed to get the newly recruited tracers ready to talk to the public and to do their job effectively as quickly as possible.

Turns out you don’t need to imagine. The US course is available online, for free through John Hopkins university & Coursera.  I decided to do it and see what I could learn, perhaps it could help me learn better ways to communicate in my daily work.

Initially I learnt about Coronavirus and the process of contact tracing. Interesting but not really relevant to my current role. I’m a Business Analyst so I was eager to move on to the effective communication module.

Our first lesson was on the importance of rapport. Rapport is the feeling of mutual understanding and trust between people. Normally this is something we build up over time as we get to know someone. For contact tracing and in the workplace this is something that we may need to accelerate. We can do that by being careful in how we communicate with people. There are tips given to trainee tracers that we can bring to our workplace.

As a starting point we need to remember to be empathetic and not dismissive. You need to use a compassionate tone.

I know, in the workplace you aren’t likely to be discussing personal or medical issues but you can still be talking to people about problems that may cause them stress or discomfort. People like to think that you care about their issues. A crucial part of building rapport is to use active listening. Active listening tells them that you’re hearing them, not just listening to the what they’re saying but trying to understand how they are feeling. As part of this you should be affirming what they are saying, so you could paraphrase what they’ve told you to show that you’ve understood. You could also reflect back what they’ve said which shows that you’ve not only taken on board what they’ve told you but that you understand what emotional effect that is having on them. For example, paraphrasing would be repeating back about the time they take filling in a spreadsheet every day. Reflecting would also expand on that to show you understand how that makes them feel frustrated.

You need to find the balance of assertiveness – not too passive and not too aggressive.

There are times in our working lives when we need people to do something they might not want to. It’s unlikely to be something as drastic as asking them to stay at home alone for 2 weeks but it might be something that they’d just rather not do! Too passive and you might not get what you need. Too aggressive and you risk damaging your relationship. By being assertive you can explain the benefits of the work and why it is important, not backing down but trying to make them care about it as much as you.

Another tip from the course was to watch our language!

As we go around talking to people we talk to people in different areas of the business who all have different levels of understanding of what we’re doing. Just as a coronavirus tracer will not use the phrase “infectious period” when “time you can pass on your illness to others” will be better understood. For us it might be to replace our technical terms with layman’s descriptions. This is all part of the overall aim of being clear and ensuring we are understood. Another thing to do to improve clarity is to convey one message at a time instead of bombarding someone with lots of details at once. If we convey our messages one at a time we give people the chance to take the information onboard. It also gives us the chance to check in and make sure they’ve understood what we’re telling them. This also applies to asking questions. If we ask multiple questions we don’t give the person chance to tell us all the information we need to know and we’re going to miss something.

Open vs Closed Questions

The course explains about different question types. We need to learn when to use these different types, some situations call for one type or another and this also depends on the type of information we’re trying to gather. Learning the different types is the first step to learning when to use them.

Closed questions are used to limit the answer choices. Sometimes they are useful but they can tend to stop the person from sharing any further information and you need to be careful with these. For example, would you prefer red or blue? What happens if they actually want green?

Open questions are used to generate a more descriptive answer and gives the person the chance to respond how they feel is appropriate. In this case you may ask, what colour would you prefer?

Probing questions are used to get more detail or to follow up on something the person said, perhaps during the answer to the initial open question. In our example, you may ask why they said they wanted green

Checking questions are used, as it sounds, to check that you’ve understood something correctly. You can use these to confirm your understanding and make sure you’re on the same page. Continuing our example, So, you want green as it reminds you of grass, is that correct?

Leading questions are a definite no no. These are the ones where you’ve worded it in such a way that you’re leading them to a specific answer, these pop up when you’ve assumed you understand but don’t forget you might not and by using a leading question you’re missing out on what might be valuable information.  In this example we’d have started with, What shade of blue do you want to use? In this case missing the fact they want green completely.

And finally….

The course talks about bringing all these points together into one communication. It suggests that we consider every statement made by the person we are talking to and work out whether it is an observation, feeling, need or request and base our responses on this judgement. We should use our questioning skills and ensure that we are actively listening to the responses in order to build our rapport.  It finishes by giving us a tip. It claims that by saying “I understand” or “I know how you feel” we sound insincere as we don’t actually truly know what they are experiencing.

As a lot of us are now working from home and using technology to communicate so much more and as a result we are missing out on all the visual cues in conversation that we are used to. Trying to consider some of these tips in our remote conversations could help us keep building our relationships, building that rapport and reducing the chance of misunderstanding each other.

So, what were the main things I got from the course?

  • Really listen. Don’t just sit there and go “mmm” in the gaps. Listen to what the person is saying and check that you’re understanding
  • Don’t pretend you know what they’re feeling. You probably don’t. You might think you do but, especially with someone you don’t know that well, what about all the stuff that hasn’t been said that could affect them.
  • Use your question types wisely. Learn when you want to shut them down to short answers and when to leave it open for them to talk. If you’re really listening you’ll know when to dig deeper

P.S You’ll be pleased to hear that I passed the course. So, if America is struggling to recruit enough contact tracers there is a BA in Chorley, Lancashire, England who is qualified to step in and help!