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Author Interview: Effective Communication Month with Speech-Language Pathologist Lauren Hermann

Cristen Iris

As someone who’s chosen to combine their love of words and people and make a career of it, I was delighted to connect with Lauren to learn about how she does the same in her chosen field. While the scope of Lauren’s work as a speech-language pathologist goes beyond helping people communicate, we are both facilitators of communication. And all day every day, all of us have opportunities to be more effective communicators and advocates for one another. I hope Lauren’s perspective in this interview empowers you to be a better communicator and provides insight into speech-language pathology, a misunderstood and undervalued profession.

 

The subtitle of your book is True Stories of a Misunderstood Profession. Although I want to focus on the communication side of things, will you give readers a brief rundown of the various ways Speech-Language Pathologists (SLPs) help patients?

SLPs can help patients with a wide range of diseases, impairments, injuries, or goals not related to “fixing” anything at all.

For example, I might help someone with Parkinson’s disease strengthen their voice, or I could help someone who identifies as a transgender male or female safely shape their voice and communication skills to match their gender identity.

People are often surprised to learn that SLPs are experts in swallowing and feeding disorders. Voice impairment, language comprehension, reading, writing, and social skills are also common domains in our line of work.

Specific conditions that many SLPs have a deep understanding of include pneumonia, heart attack, traumatic brain injury, diabetes, burn injuries, and even constipation and urinary tract infection.

I like to describe the profession of speech-language pathology as the profession that helps to improve, find, or strengthen life’s greatest gifts: speaking, eating, and thinking.

What do you see as the single most important thing related to communication?

We must understand that communication is a two-part process. Communication requires expressive language (e.g., speaking) and receptive language (e.g. understanding). If one of those two pieces is missing, communication doesn’t happen.

I may be able to speak and express my thoughts, but if I can’t comprehend my speaking partner’s or audience’s questions, comments, or even body language I’m simply talking at someone instead of communicating with them.

If I’m unable to speak using my voice and lips but know sign language, I still won’t be able to communicate my message if those around me can’t understand sign language. That’s why it’s important to check in with whomever you’re interacting every now and then to make sure your message is understood.

In chapter 8 of your book, you write about a patient who suffers from aphasia. I’d never heard that term but was struck by how the needs of that person connect to the needs of many others. What recommendations do you have that can help us all be better listeners and more respectful and inclusive communicators?

Aphasia is a language impairment often due to a stroke or brain tumor that disrupts the language centers of our brain.

The recommendations we often give to family members and the community when it comes to communicating with people who have aphasia place a lot of emphasis on being a better listener. For example, becoming comfortable with silence while allowing the individual to speak is one strategy.

Many people may have the urge to fill in the gap by attempting to finish the sentence for someone or help the by guessing the word that the individual is stuck on. This can cause more frustration.

Instead, I recommend allowing more time and asking helpful questions to guide that person to the right words. Using simple yes/no questions instead of open-ended questions can be extremely helpful.

Another consideration is to reduce or eliminate distractions when speaking with someone who has communication difficulties. This could mean closing a door, turning off a TV, putting your cellphone away, or even positioning yourself in front of a wall instead of a busy background with people or monitors so the individual is less distracted.

Speaking slower, but not so slowly that it’s insulting, can also help with language comprehension. It can be difficult to slow down in a fast-paced world, but ultimately slowing down is what makes you a better listener.

One of the things you brought to my awareness is how traumatic brain injuries (TBIs) can interfere with or influence communication and that people in the criminal justice system are more likely to suffer a TBI than those outside the system. Can you share a bit about the effects of TBIs on communication and the role SLPs can play within prison system?

Common long-term effects of TBIs include memory impairment, reduced impulse control, attention difficulties, dementia, poor mood regulation, and aggressive behavior, with aggressive behavior being one of the more common symptoms.

Communication breakdowns can occur because of impaired attention and memory making it difficult for the TBI survivor to follow along in a conversation. Depending on which areas of the brain are damaged, a true language impairment (like aphasia) can result.

SLPs have several important roles within the prison system. They can assess cognitive and communication skills and act as advocates, promote a better understanding of the client’s limitations to the courts, explain which support systems should be in place to reduce the risk of recidivism, and provide additional support and education to ensure daily needs are being met.

In my book, I discuss working with a hospitalized man who was incarcerated. What others were labeling as “non-compliance” and “behavioral issues” ended up being a communication impairment. He didn’t know how to communicate the discomfort he was feeling from his feeding tube. The best way he knew to go about it was to pull the tube out of his stomach and throw it.

While social service workers, psychologists, and psychiatrists are more commonly seen as part of the healthcare team in the prison system to focus on mental health, SLPs are integral parts and often the missing piece to setting someone up for success due to overlooked cognitive and communication impairments.

People communicate in many ways, speech and sign language being the most interactive. Why was it important for you to communicate using written words in book format?

Written words can reach more people, and a book can be accessed globally. For those who have visual or reading impairments, my next step is to record an audiobook. A book can be given as a gift and recommended. A book can also open the minds in a way that short conversations can’t always accomplish.

I find that I’m much better at strengthening a message when I have time to look back at my words, find holes, improve my message, and enhance it through storytelling. Stories are powerful and relatable. While I’ve told these stories through podcasts and group discussions, my voice will only be carried so far.

What I love about written words and books in general is the way they can travel. My words and the words of the contributing SLPs can now be found in harder-to-reach places. They can be carried in a purse, voyage on a bus, rest on a nightstand, or watch the sunrise next to a cup of coffee.

I believe a message can sink in just a bit deeper when it has found its way into these intimate spaces.

Is there anything about SLPs and communication that you wish I’d asked but didn’t?

While we might think of communication being primarily used from young childhood to late adulthood, I’d like to highlight that even newborns and those who are days away from taking their final breath also require us to be aware of their communication needs. SLPs fill this space.

While newborns can’t speak or intentionally gesture, their body language and vocalizations can communicate much more than we realize, particularly when it comes to what’s going on inside their bodies. SLPs are experts and advocates when it comes to infant and pediatric feeding difficulties and guide parents towards greater success with their newborns.

Looking at the infant’s body language to understand when there’s discomfort, not enough nourishment, too much feeding, or if something else is wrong is a critical step towards fostering healthy growth and meeting future milestones.

On the other end of the spectrum is aging and end-of-life. Even if someone is non-verbal and days or hours away from passing away, SLPs can guide healthcare providers and family members in strategies to support communication. This ensures that goals are met, and the person dies with comfort and dignity. Oftentimes we don’t think about how important communicating with our loved ones during those final days truly is until we’re in it, and unfortunately, that can increase caregiver burden and stress within the healthcare system. While SLPs are not treating communication disorders in the context of hospice and end-of-life, they are supporting this basic human right and offering an added layer of peace for everyone involved.

 

Lauren Hermann, M.S. CCC-SLP and author of But My Speech Is Fine! Speech-Language Pathology: True stories of a misunderstood professionAbout Lauren Hermann, M.S. CCC-SLP

Lauren was born and raised in Virginia’s beautiful Shenandoah Valley. She considers herself to be multi-passionate, often finding joy in speech-language pathology, writing, spontaneous travel, and supporting her husband’s business through creative marketing. She currently offers virtual therapy through her private practice, Ideal Speech Solutions. Above all, her greatest joy comes from connecting with others from all walks of life. You can learn more about Lauren and her practice at IdealSpeechSolutions.com.

Book cover image for But My Speech Is Fine: Speech Language Pathology: True Stories of a Misunderstood Profession

 

Feature Image by Public Domain Pictures by Pixabay

 

CI Communication Strategies

Cristen Iris

2019

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