How Communication Intelligence Can Improve Your Practice

Rick Olsen, PhD
Consultant, The Forté Institute
Chair, Department of Communication Studies
University of North Carolina Wilmington

I am a communication specialist, not a rheumatologist, but I have had enough “weekend warrior” injuries to understand that a joint needs to be strong and flexible. It is the same for people working together—they need to be able to operate in their individual roles and with their own strengths, and remain flexible when interacting with others.

When it comes to communication and collaboration, the corresponding terms for strong and flexible are “self-aware” and “adapting,” respectively.

Although it is considered a “soft skill,” communication makes a tangible difference in quality of work, and in the quality of life of those doing the work. Effective communication can also be key in reducing costly misunderstandings and mistakes, and reducing office politics and power struggles.

Sutcliffe and colleagues agree that failures in communication that happen in medical settings often arise from differences in vertical hierarchy. These include concerns regarding upward influence, role conflict, and uncertainty, and challenges associated with interpersonal power and conflict.1

Amplifying this insight, O’Daniel and Rosenstein assert that “Communication is likely to be distorted or withheld in situations when there are hierarchical differences between two communicators, particularly when one person is concerned about appearing incompetent, does not want to offend the other, or perceives that the other is not open to communication.”2

How to Improve Workplace Communication

How do we improve workplace communication? First, we have to understand that “the office” is actually a verb and not a noun. It is something that is done, created, and performed by the people within.

When we think of the office as a thing, we see it as fixed and unchangeable. Yet, when we see it as something we create and recreate everyday by the patterns of communication we engage in, we can more easily notice and change those patterns—this is self-awareness and adapting at work.

Note that I said “more easily” rather than “easily”; this is because although we can strive to change patterns, we cannot really change other people.

The Forté Institute, Wilmington, NC, maintains that “People don’t ‘change’ – they evolve and adapt through education, experience and feedback.”3 Given that reality, the Forté Communication Style Profile assessment addresses 3 main questions:

  1. Who are you? How are you hardwired? What communication and interaction strengths do you carry into each situation? What motivates you?
  2. How well are you adapting to your current situations at work? Are you trying to meet the perceived expectations or needs of others on the job?
  3. How are you likely coming across to others right now? How are your adapting efforts being perceived by your coworkers; are you coming across the way you intend? Are your efforts to adapt successful, or do they go unnoticed or misunderstood?

Attendees of the upcoming National Organization of Rheumatology Managers 2017 Annual Conference, which will be held September 14-16 in Kansas City, MO, will have the opportunity to complete their own Forté profiles before the meeting, and learn how to understand and apply the results to themselves and their practices through a general session and 2 breakout sessions.

After taking a brief but powerful survey, every Forté user gets an accurate picture of his or her communication style for each of the 3 questions noted above (ie, self-awareness), and receives coaching on how to adapt and respond for greater collaboration and success (ie, adaptability).

Because Forté is strength-based, knowledge of a coworker’s Forté profile helps to create a greater appreciation for everyone’s traits, preferences, and motivations. This enables people to interact in ways that are productive, build long-term trust and rapport, and create synergy and resilience within their teams.

Individuals who do not adapt well generally lack self-awareness, or healthy, sustainable, and effective adapting strategies. This is where Forté’s adapting and perceiving feedback is valuable, and differs from so many other “personality profiles” that have their finish line at “this is who you are.” Self-awareness is a starting point, not a finish line.

What does this mean for you, the rheumatology practice manager? Imagine 4 individuals in a rheumatology office who are considering changing their medical records system—Donna, Eric, Pat, and Chris.

Donna has a primary strength of dominance; she likes to get things done independently and efficiently, and wants the team to make a decision and implement it quickly. Eric is highly extroverted; he wants to make sure everyone has input and is happy with a decision, so that relationships are well-maintained. Pat’s primary strength is patience; she likes to move steadily and sequentially, taking her time, but she trusts that “in the end, it’ll all work out.” Chris, meanwhile, has conformist strengths; he feels strongly that things must be done correctly and fairly. In fact, Chris feels that the current records system works well enough, and he is reluctant to change it. He believes that the extra cost and confusion that changing systems will bring is likely not worth it. Chris definitely wants to see “all the facts” before he decides.

You can see the potential for conflict here—each person may have different ideas about what makes for a good record-keeping system, but they also have different priorities for the process of selecting and implementing said system. Without awareness of self and others—and absent effective adapting strategies—this decision could become an ongoing source of distress in the office, leaving some feeling unheard or unappreciated, and not fully invested in whatever decision emerges.

Using Forté, this team could recognize, appreciate, and use each of their strengths in ways that foster a better overall decision and an easier implementation. Each employee could go home feeling valued and productive, thinking, “This is a great place to work.”

It is not magic—it is what Forté calls “communication intelligence,” and your rheumatology office can create it each day through awareness and adaptation.


  1. Sutcliffe KM, Lewton E, Rosenthal MM. Communication failures: an insidious contributor to medical mishaps. Acad Med. 2004;79:186-194.
  2. O’Daniel M, Rosenstein AH. Professional communication and team collaboration. In: Hughes RG, ed. Patient Safety and Quality: An Evidence-Based Handbook for Nurses. Rockville, MD: Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality; 2008:2-271-2-284.
  3. The Forté Institute. The Forté process suite. 2012. Accessed July 19, 2017.

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