Interpreters and Family Members: Friends or Foes?

friend or foe

Medical interpreters face many challenges day-in and day-out. It comes with the territory. In many cases and for many interpreters these challenges are what keeps the work fresh, new, and exciting. Some challenges, however, can be very draining on interpreters, and lead them to wonder if perhaps a different line of work would be more suitable. One such challenge is interpreting in situations that involve a bilingual family member who is not very thrilled that an interpreter is involved in the encounter.

When faced with an abrasive family member, it can be tempting to go on the defensive and view the family member as a foe, someone opposed to the freedom of communication that is ensured by the professional interpreter. Rarely does any good come of a defensive posture.

Here are some tips on keeping your cool in these situations and moving away from the perspective of the family member as a foe to the perspective of the family member as more of a friend.*

Your Attitude

Some people have highly developed poker faces. You never know what they are thinking or feeling about a person or situation. They are really, really good at playing it cool all the time.

The rest of us are easier to read. A ruffled brown, a deep sigh, a hard swallow are hints – or dead giveaways – that our attitude toward the person or situation is not a good one. An interpreter with a negative, defensive, or icy attitude will only highlight the tension, at best, or escalate the situation, at worst.

Take extra care that your reaction to a family member with a prickly demeanor isn’t also a prickly one.

Prickly reaction example 1: Your family member has a right to a professional interpreter and a confidential consult with their physician!

Prickly reaction example 2:  I am a trained, professional, full-time, certified interpreter with 7 years of experience; What are your qualifications!?

Instead of working to mask feelings of awkwardness or frustration, work to change your feelings. Keep the situation in its proper perspective. Don’t take it personally or as a slight against your professional abilities. Approach the situation and person with the utmost respect and professionalism. Remind yourself of the value that the family member brings to the medical encounter, even if it is hard for you to see it at first.

Similarly, don’t jump to conclusions, which might be false, and could cloud your judgment. For example, don’t assume that the reason the family member doesn’t want you any where near is because the family member is abusing, controlling or manipulating the patient and your presence would jeopardize their reign of tyranny. Judging a situation too quickly can be just as perilous as ignoring an obvious problem. Keep your filters in check. 

Before trying to change anyone’s opinion or attitude and before trying to win anyone over, address what you can control – your attitude.

Their Perspective

Keeping in mind the reasons why family members sometimes don’t want an outsider (a.k.a. professional interpreter), it’s also helpful to remember that the family member is most likely dealing with a lot of stress. People aren’t always at their best when they are dealing with stress, especially when it involves a loved one who is under the care of a medical team.  It’s possible that they are operating at or slightly beyond their capacity to manage stress in a calm and collected way. It might be really difficult for them to cordially interact with other people. This includes you, the interpreter. In their eyes, you might be seen as yet another variable that has to be sorted out and factored in – all while struggling with the challenges of navigating a complex healthcare system, a loved one’s chronic illness, bills, family dynamics, work demands, and all the other invisible burdens they carry with them. 

Acknowledge their struggle – covertly to yourself or overtly to them, if appropriate, which brings us to the next point. . .

Common Ground

An effective way to diffuse an adversarial situation is to remove the perception that you are an adversary. Establish your common ground. Do this by aligning yourself with the shared purpose that everyone (patient, provider, family member, interpreter) in the encounter has: attaining the best possible medical outcome for the patient.

Do an effective pre-session, as usual. Emphasize that your purpose is to allow everyone to communicate with each other in the language that is most comfortable for them. Let the family member know that you will take care of the interpreting so that they can focus on being the family member – asking and answering questions, advocating for the best care, reassuring the patient, and all the wonderful things that family members do best. Ultimately, let the family member know that your interest aligns with theirs: Working to attain for the best possible outcome for the patient.

Admittedly, it’s a lot easier to write and talk about this in a safe, theoretical environment – like a blog post or conversation with colleagues. It’s another thing to face it straight on in the field. If you struggle with these situations, you’re not alone. Prepare your mindset ahead of time. Approach each situation with the expectation that there will be a family member present so that you’re not shaken off your game. Be prepared, without being on guard (a.k.a. defensive), and be ready to show extra respect and tact for the value each individual brings to the encounter. Be ready to impress everyone – especially the family member – with your stellar interpreting skills while striking the delicate balance between confidence and humbleness.

What tips do you have for interpreters to successfully manage these situations? 

*Just to be clear, the term “friend” as used in this post, should not be thought of as a bosom buddy, but rather as a respected individual who brings value to the encounter.

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Posted on May 27, 2015 and filed under Interpreter.