My best friend’s daughter just turned two, and her vocabulary increases substantially every day. I’m fortunate enough to get to see little Sylvia all the time, and her answers to my questions continue to get lengthier and more impressive. And I’m learning things, too (although not nearly as quickly as she is, made clear by the fact that she can do things with my cell phone that I cannot). Mostly, I’m learning how to ask the right questions.
Last week, Sylvia saw me eating avocado and asked for some. She took a bite and crinkled her nose. I asked her if it was yucky, and she nodded. Then she reached for more. So I asked, “How does the avocado taste?” and she replied, “Deeeee-licious!” with a mushy green smile. Likewise, if I ask to see what she’s holding, inevitably the answer is “no!” accompanied by a pre-emptive temper tantrum; however, if I ask if she can show me how to do something with what she has in her hands, she’s all smiles and sharing. If I keep with it, I might successfully pass this Communicating with Toddlers 101 class.
Clearly, asking the right question matters. I’ve taken plenty of phone surveys where some friendly but detached voice on the other end of the line asks me about my last customer service experience with a set of yes and no or Likert Scale questions. I always hang up dissatisfied that I didn’t have the opportunity to tell them about the real issues on my mind, and knowing that the limited answers they collected from me don’t reflect my real experience or my true feelings. And they should be dissatisfied with that, too—why spend the time and energy to ask the questions if the feedback you get isn’t going to help you understand the true sentiments of your customers?
In health care, we understand that patient feedback is important to the success of providers, clinics, and hospitals—to the success of our overall health care system; however, we have a long way to go to ensure we’re asking the right questions. We ask if patients were satisfied with their visit, if their doctor explained their diagnosis, if they received high quality care, among other well-intentioned questions. We assume that patients’ answers will give us insight into how good a job we’re doing and help us improve in areas of weakness. It’s also a point of pride for those providers and places of care that receive good feedback. However, these questions ultimately don’t tell us if we accomplished our primary goal—did the patient actually get care or advice that will help improve their health? They also rely on nebulous concepts like ‘satisfaction’ and ‘quality’ which mean very different things to each individual. If we ask if a patient’s hospital room had enough privacy, and they say “yes,” although in reality, they were scared to death in that hospital room by themselves, that answer gets recorded as a “yes,” instead of the more nuanced, “patients left alone in a room with a scary diagnosis may be terrified.” If we ask if a provider communicated well, and the patient says the provider asked them plenty of questions and gave them information, but never actually looked them in the eye, that, too, might be recorded as a “yes,” when it should not be.
Whether its kids, customers, or patients, when you ask the wrong question, or ask the right question in the wrong way, the answers you get are incomplete. The good news is that we’ve embraced the idea that we must ask for feedback from those we serve; the challenge now is to ensure we are asking for the kind of feedback we really need, and allowing for nuanced responses, not just “yes,” “no,” or a number on an arbitrary scale.
When I ask Sylvia the right questions, we are both happier with the interaction and it gives us something to build on. That’s important because I hear Communicating with Teenagers is a much more rigorous course. Hopefully we’ll be prepared for the challenge!