How Communications Skills Can Make or Break Your Career


Respiratory therapy is a profession that demands a broad skill set and proven expertise. But being great at the technical and scientific aspects of the job doesn’t guarantee you’ll move up the career ladder. To do that, you also need to be an excellent communicator, and that’s one skill that’s harder to teach and even harder to learn.

Two respiratory care managers explain what communication skills mean in the context of respiratory care and how these skills can improve a therapist’s chances of getting what they want out of their careers.

Speak and write well

“Good communication skills are exemplified by the observed ability to clearly and effectively convey explanation, instruction, and ideas,” said Thomas Berlin, DHSc, MSc, RRT, director of pulmonary and respiratory care at AdventHealth Orlando in Orlando, FL. “These skills must be coupled with the ability to assess the recipient’s understanding of the information communicated.”

Dr. Berlin goes on to note that therapists must have a solid command of both written and verbal language and the confidence to apply them to any given situation. RTs who can’t master those skills will be at a distinct disadvantage, not only in terms of their own professional goals and aspirations, but also when it comes to achieving therapeutic goals for their patients.

Indeed, he believes the importance of communication skills to the profession is one reason why respiratory therapy needs to move beyond the two-year degree entry level.

“Lack of time and focus on communication skills are a primary reason two-year degrees in respiratory care education are insufficient,” Dr. Berlin said.

If you don’t know, ask

Tim Buckley MSc, RRT, FAARC, says the first skill he wants to see in any RT is the ability to “practice with a questioning attitude.” By that he means, if you don’t know why something is occurring or why you are doing a specific therapy, ask.

“It sets up the RT as a lifelong learner, and effectively says to your co-workers, ‘I want to understand,’” said the director of respiratory care, the Sleep Disorders Center, and neurodiagnostics at Froedtert South, Inc., in Kenosha, WI. “It is the starting point for a dialog.”

Buckley says he uses this concept to enhance communication skills among therapists at the bedside. For example, he might ask, “Can you tell me why we are doing q2 hour incentive spirometry on this patient?”

The therapist in question gets the chance to explain the rationale for the therapy, and that opens the door to a better idea in cases where the rationale doesn’t meet best practice.

“It leads me to be able to reply to their answer with something that might be more effective,” Buckley said.

A right way and a wrong way

Both managers believe excellent communication skills boost the RT’s chances of success on the job.

“Effective communication skills are key to career development. This is not unique to RT, but every career,” Buckley said. “If you are an excellent auto mechanic, but can’t communicate effectively, I truly believe you will be less effective in telling me why that oil change should cost $110.”

He says therapists who know how to communicate their thoughts and ideas also go a long way toward dispelling some of the myths about the profession that RTs often lament.

“Often I hear from RTs that, ‘no one ever listens to me,’” he said. That’s not the right way to get your message across, emphasizes Buckley, and most often just makes it look like you are complaining. “It immediately colors the information you are trying to relay,” said the manager.

Poor communication skills in the written arena muddy the waters too.

“If you are writing notes that ramble and are not clear, the physician is unlikely to take the time to read them,” he continues. “Advancing in your career or expanding your role as an RT is going to be much easier if you’re are able to speak and write well enough to state your position and defend it.”

Three reasons why

Dr. Berlin offers three reasons why RTs should consider improving their communication skills —

  • First, the ability to clearly and confidently communicate will always impress a prospective employer.
  • Second, communication skills will help the therapist succeed clinically as an effective clinician and collaborator.
  • Third, these cumulative skills, in addition to technical competence and a strong work ethic, will help the employee gain notice from superiors for consideration for advancement.

Therapists who want to move into areas like education and research especially need to up their game in the area of communication, continues Dr. Berlin.

“Expert-level verbal and written communication skills are essential for educators to simplify explanation and concepts, as well as establish expectations for and recognize effective communication from students,” he noted. “Successful research and publication typically require advanced education and preparation, and cannot occur without a mastery of the written word.”

Advance your degree

How can you hone your own communication skills? Advancing your degree is certainly a great option. Bachelor’s and master’s degree programs often include coursework aimed at ensuring graduates walk away with the ability to effectively use written and spoken language to get their points across.

Find accredited respiratory care programs, including degree advancement programs, here.