Communicating in a Clinical or Public Health Micro Lab
Laboratorians focus strongly on developing scientific and technical knowledge and skills. However, it is also important to develop the ability to communicate with coworkers and customers, as well as build and maintain interpersonal relationships in the lab to facilitate a good team. In this episode of Career Conversations for the Medical and Public Health Laboratory, Zenda Berrada, Ph.D., D(ABMM), chief of the microbial diseases laboratory program at the California Department of Public Health, and her guests, Linda Guthertz, public health microbiologist trainer at the California Department of Public Health and Mondraya Howard, Ph.D., clinical microbiology departmental fellow at the University of Rochester Medicine Labs, discuss good communication skills and barriers to communication.
When practicing good communication skills, it is important to implement the following tools:
- Be aware of other forms of communication that one may be giving off (verbal, written and body language).
- Be clear, concise, concrete, correct and coherent.
- Be mindful of one’s tone.
- Be patient.
- Confirm the expectations of each team member.
- One shouldn’t be afraid to say that they don’t know.
- Listen closely.
- When talking to colleagues and clients, one should remember that both parties share a common goal.
Barriers to Communication and Ways to Overcome Them
Over Communicating“Over communicating can be a barrier to effectively communicating in the workplace,” Howard said. Overloading someone with too much information can lead to confusion, and the point of the conversation may be lost. To avoid over communicating, Howard suggested taking a moment prior to a conversation to confirm the main points. Sticking to these points, while keeping details supplemental, facilitates a more streamlined, clear conversation.
Lack of TrustAnother barrier to clear communication is a lack of trust. Howard suggested working with a trustworthy member of the group to develop strategies for sharing information with the group at-large can help appease fears of being misunderstood. This method also works if one is uncomfortable with sharing in front of a group.
ImpatienceHaving patience with the intended audience is also important. Laboratorians work with colleagues from diverse cultural and educational backgrounds. “When speaking to someone whose native language is not English, be patient and understanding, as that person may not feel confident with their words,” suggested Guthertz.
Berrada added, “When speaking to a person who is unfamiliar with the technical language, make sure to describe the situation in terms that they would understand.”
Lack of ConfidenceAnother way to overcome these barriers to communication is to speak up when being trained. “There are no stupid questions," said Howard. “It can let the trainer know that the trainee is interested in learning more about the tests being performed. It also helps the trainer relearn any gaps in their knowledge and helps them improve their training. The trainer has been in the trainee’s shoes before and understands that questions need to be asked.” One can also speak up by sharing constructive feedback either during or following a collaborative project.
Guthertz suggested joining a journal club or a local toastmasters club. “Volunteer to give a presentation after learning the language of the lab,” said Guthertz. Those looking to practice their presentation skills can volunteer to give presentations at a lab meeting or submit a case study to ASM. Finally, ask for feedback.
Resolving Workplace Conflicts and Improving Working Relationships“Don’t let issues fester. Deal with them as soon as possible, or they might snowball until finally addressed. Keep an open mind when discussing the conflict and hear the other person’s point of view as well. One doesn’t know what the other person is going through and there can be an underlying personal issue,” said Howard.
“If there are 2 employees who are having trouble communicating, their supervisor may consider partnering them together on additional projects and helping them find alternative ways to communicate,” said Guthertz.
Laboratorians can also improve relationships with coworkers and supervisors by celebrating birthdays and other milestones. Lastly, find ways to welcome a new colleague to the laboratory. This will help jumpstart working relationships between new and existing colleagues.
Ways to Build Communication Skills
“One should take control of their own professional development,” said Howard. “If something looks interesting down the aisle, talk to that tech who is working on it. Laboratorians can interact with other benches to learn more and improve their conversational skills. Take opportunities to learn on other benches and get cross-training in the lab. This shows one’s supervisor that they are interested and want to be involved, which can result in leading future projects.”
“Take advantage of any non-technical training the laboratory institution may have,” suggested Berrada. “Be proactive in seeking out those opportunities. Go to conferences and talk to other professionals. One should get outside of their comfort zone.”
Similarly, Guthertz added, “When going to a conference, go to a couple of sessions that are different from what one does. It will help one expand one’s knowledge.”
Lastly, Guthertz advised, “Laboratorians should keep a notebook in their lab coat pocket and write things down. One will learn skills and information from someone who has been on the bench for decades—that may not be found in textbooks. Plus, read whenever possible. The more one reads, the more comfortable they will feel with the topic.”
Career Conversations for the Medical and Public Health Laboratory Scientist is a twice-quarterly discussion on career advancement in clinical and public health laboratories. Members of ASM’s Clinical Microbiology Mentoring Subcommittee (CMMS) will invite guests from clinical and public health microbiology laboratories to discuss topics specific to the laboratory. The CMMS’ goal is to help others learn more about the profession and advance their careers in the clinical or public health microbiology laboratory.
The CMMS provides career advancement activities for those new to the field of clinical or public health microbiology. Its roster of mentors is available to answer any career advancement questions you have.