Stem Cell Skills

Stem Cell Skills

How much do we really learn by observing others? Children excel at it but do adults?

Many years ago when doing a first level British Sign Language course the instructor, who was profoundly deaf, insisted that we all learn to communicate with our face without moving our hands. We were taught to emote in an exaggerated fashion, to overcome our reserve and really ham it up (I hated it!). Only then were we allowed to use gestures as well and it was not until the third evening (by which time I was actually getting in to it!) were we taught our first formal sign…

In the first blog I introduced Charlie who has a lovely way about him; he has a kind, thoughtful and engaged manner which seems to be intuitive and comes naturally to him. Over the next few blogs I then discussed the possibility of certain personality traits which might be important in pre-disposing someone to work in such an intuitive way. In this blog I want to move the discussion on to consider what it is that excellent health and social care practitioners actually do that sets them apart. Not their formal skills and competencies but the subtly of their interactions with others, what many may call social skills. By learning from what people who are good at what they do helps the rest of us to learn how to improve- the focus, like the BSL instructor, is on our informal interaction skills.

Great sportsperson, regardless of their physical predisposition, break down the many micro skills that they need so they can practice them individually before putting them all together when actually competing. I am not a tennis player but I believe Roger Federer is said to have the best backhand in the game. He uses it with seemingly effortless ease and grace to devastating effect. I checked this on line and found the following analysis of the Federer backhand:

“As soon as Federer reaches the contact point, the arm usually is straightened out at contact. During the takeback and backswing phase, the arm is usually slightly bent, but at contact point the arm has usually straightened out considerably. Often times Federer’s contact point is in front of the body. The issue of the arm position should occur naturally, provided that the technique earlier on in the swing was correct. This is partially facilitated by the backhand grip, which naturally puts the contact point out in front with the arm ideally straightened out at contact.” (From a site called Optimum Tennis).

So know you know! As I say I am not a tennis player but if I were I should like to know what it is that Federer actually does in detail so I could improve my play and I am absolutely sure Federer himself uses such analysis himself to become even better- part of his 10,000 hours of practice to be a top performer.

It may appear farfetched to compare Charlie’s intuitive way of working with a top tennis champion but there is relevance: people who make things look easy are hard to copy, their micro skills or in Charlie’s case, his non-verbal and soft interacting skills are almost imperceptible, are so interconnected and fast flowing, they become just the way he is- his manner. A trained coach can analyse a sportsman’s micro skills just as a trained conductor can hear every individual instrument in a symphony orchestra but the rest of us can only marvel at the performance. We might be lucky enough to work alongside people like Charlie and there will be things we will learn but I wonder how much? We need great role models but how much do we really learn by observation alone without coaching?  How much of what we learn remains with us without purposeful practice.  Sadly, due to lack of practice, I have forgotten nearly all my BSL sign language and have become self conscious again when I try.

How many of us in health and social care have suggested to a new employee to work alongside a good role model in the hope and belief that something will rub off, that there will be transference of magic dust. We know that happy people tend to make those around them happy and the converse. So a good worker should improve the practice of those around them? I wonder how much this is true and to what degree- it certainly can’t do any harm but it presupposes a lot about the inductee and at the same time intuitive workers are notorious for not knowing the value of their own skills- they are just being themselves. Besides, what about the induction of the tens of thousands of front line colleagues who are lone workers- after the first week of so they often don’t come into contact with other colleagues, good role models or not, from one week to the next?

Like the sports coach who deconstructed Federer’s backhand it is possible to do the same about good interactions; good actors do this in order to identify the micro behaviours, the subtle soft skills of interpersonal communication to become the character they wish to be. It is my contention all people facing professionals would do their job more effectively if we understood these skills more and developed ways of learning which were more akin to coaching rather than relying on observation and chance. Rather like stem cells that can develop a more specific function over time, if we introduced stem cell skills awareness and training to all people facing professionals then, as we developed into doctors, nurses, teachers, social workers, care and support workers or whatever, we will learn to interact well we will be more effective.

In the next blog I will look at this in more detail and in the meantime welcome any thoughts or examples.