|The Strategic Bedside Manner: Former Jail Lieutenant Offers Advice on the Do’s and Don’ts When Speaking to Inmates|
|By Katie Przychodzen, NCCHC|
“It is just as important for individuals to feel they have ‘been heard’ as it is for them to hear exactly what you say, and maybe even more so,” said James Martin, MPSA, CCHP, during a presentation on how to tactically communicate with inmates, which he gave at the National Commission on Correctional Health Care’s 40th National Conference in October. Martin is accreditation specialist at the National Commission on Correctional Health Care and a retired Vanderburgh County Sheriff’s Office lieutenant.
Martin grounded his talk in the premise that all health professionals seek to gain voluntary compliance from their patients. This can be especially difficult in correctional settings, where numerous internal and external triggers for aggressive behavior often exist. Those triggers can include perceptions of physical threats, emotional instability and lack of personal space. For correctional health professionals to effectively communicate with inmates despite these triggers, Martin posits, they must adopt a three-pronged approach: establish rapport, minimize personal stress and embody professionalism.
Establishing rapport. Martin explained that rapport is a relationship based on mutual understanding and trust. “We may not condone the reason they are in our facility, but we must respect their need for our health care so that we can leave them in better shape than when they arrived,” he said. To establish rapport with an inmate, the correctional health professional needs to avoid any communication style that implies judgment or an air of superiority. Phrases such as “I can see how angry you are” and “What do you think causes that?” can help to assure inmates they are being listened to, thereby validating their concerns. On the other hand, statements like “Calm down” and “You shouldn’t feel that way” come off as accusatory and create defensiveness, thus potentially escalating an already negative situation.
Minimizing personal stress. The importance of achieving a balanced state of mind when working in a correctional setting cannot be overstated, according to Martin. Correctional staff are not immune to the stresses of the environment in which they work, and encountering an inmate in crisis may prove much more difficult for health professionals who are also battling problems of their own. “Just as we must consider the inmates’ experiences before and after the event that brought them to us,” Martin said, “we need to be mindful of the baggage we are lugging around, as well.” Mental clarity, he argued, can and should be applied to encounters by correctional staff with inmates in distress.
Displaying professionalism. “You did not cause the inmate’s pain,” Martin explained, “so do not take it personally when he or she displaces feelings onto you.” A healthy level of detachment and objectivity is necessary to maintain professionalism when communicating with inmates. Correctional health professionals, he stated, must embrace this objectivity and couple it with an understanding of crisis management, realizing that every stage of a crisis is an attempt at communication. When in crisis, an individual’s usual social, communication and rational abilities are impeded, so effective de-escalation requires two-way communication that the distressed individual can respond to. Martin suggested that professionals stay calm, speak and act courteously, use “I” statements, lay out the choices that the inmate can make, focus on the future and actively listen. Under no circumstance should the professional issue ultimatums, argue, fake attention or belittle the inmate in front of others. In short, displaying professionalism is rooted in objectivity and respect.
Martin summed up his approach to strategic communication in correctional settings as “learning the skills that will enable you to effectively communicate with people, even when they are at their worst.” For more information on de-escalation in correctional health care settings, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Katie Przychodzen is marketing assistant at NCCHC.
NCCHC’s Spring Conference on Correctional Health Care will be held April 29-May 2 in Atlanta. For more information, go to www.ncchc.org.
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