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Leadership/Management

The Seven Windows Counseling Process

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As a front line supervisor or preceptor you’re constantly interacting with employees or students, striving to improve their performance or get them to remain within the work rules established by the agency.

Often the message is unclear or misinterpreted, requiring more employee engagement and decreased efficiency because performance issues weren’t corrected on the first pass.

More worrisome are bad behavior or poor performance developing into “normalization of deviance” if the behavior goes unchecked and it’s deemed acceptable within the organization to bend, break or ignore rules, SOPs/SOGs, protocol, or the organizational processes.

One effective technique for engaging employees on performance is called the Seven Windows Counseling Process. Developed in the 1990s by Dr. Richard Resurrection and Owen Gunter, a fire captain for the Long Beach Fire Department, the Seven Windows is a form of due process and a communication model designed to help students or employees build skills to be successful within the organization.

Much of this work was from the original paramedic preceptor program developed for L.A. County fire agencies. It was intended to hold students accountable to the paramedic preceptor competencies, and provide proper documentation and a formal process for preceptors to learn when building skills in paramedics.

The Seven Windows begins with window one—a “friendly greeting” by the supervisor, based on small talk and something that’s not relevant to the performance issue. It’s designed to allow the employee to relax and have a frank discussion, without feeling attacked or anxious, which can lead to poor communication, hostility or a compromise in the employee’s dignity. For example, a supervisor calls a paramedic in to discuss a poor intubation success rate. The conversation may start with, “Hello, Paul, how are things at Station 42?” “Busy,” replies the paramedic. “I heard the crew was out on the Red Rocks mountain bike trail the other day for a spectacular ride,” the supervisor states. The conversation goes on for another few minutes as the paramedic talks about the crew’s bike riding experience.

Window two is when the supervisor states the problem as it’s understood by management, based on factual information that was observed or gathered as the result of an investigation or review of performance. For example, “Paul, we’re here to talk about your intubation success rate. The QI director has reported your success rate on first attempt has dropped to less than 60%.”

In window three the employee has the opportunity to provide their explanation version of the story, performance or event. It may be as simple as, “Yes, you’re right.” Or there may be other circumstances requiring follow-up questions, such as, “Why do you think that’s happening?” In this example, the paramedic might say he’s rusty and there just haven’t been enough opportunities lately.

Reflective listening takes places in window four, when the supervisor might state, for example, “So what I heard you say is …; is this correct?” This ensures the communication has been crystal clear and no misunderstanding has taken place. Reflective listening establishes the kind of closed feedback loop we’re so accustomed to seeing in emergency communication and its advantages are similar to those on the emergency scene.

Window five requires the supervisor to state the rule, regulation, SOG/SOP or protocol that’s been violated. For example, the organization may operate with a standard of 90% of all intubations must be performed to successful completion on the first attempt, or have proper documentation to explain a difficult airway. In this case the performance requirement of 90% is a benchmark all providers are expected to meet.

Window six requires the supervisor to work collaboratively with the employee to develop a plan to conform to or meet the standard. For example, the plan resulting from this discussion might be to continue monitoring the paramedic’s intubation success rate, send the paramedic to the operating room for a rotation or simply get the manikin out with a trainer and work on technique. Regardless of which solution is chosen, it needs to follow these simple guidelines:

  • It must be mutually agreed to;
  • It must meet or exceed the standard, SOP/SOG, rule or protocol;
  • The employee must be offered assistance with feedback or training; and
  • A firm and specific review date must be set to gauge compliance.

That last point is absolutely critical. It’s the piece that provides accountability and requires the supervisor and employee to actually log the review date on a calendar. The importance of writing the review date down can’t be understated, as an unwritten meeting date is often scheduled over or missed, sending a message that the counseling session wasn’t really that important.

Window seven provides positive reinforcement as the supervisor wraps up the conversation. The sandwich technique is utilized in this seven-step process, meaning we need to begin and end the conversation on a positive note, leaving the “meat” of the issue firmly in the middle of the discussion. For example, a supervisor might focus on an area in which the employee is exceeding standards, or reflect on the employee’s strong service in other areas, such as public education.

Following the steps in the Seven Windows Counseling Process places the bulk of the responsibility for improvement on the employee. If there’s non-compliance it’s because the employee didn’t take action, not because the supervisor failed to do his or her due diligence and provide the proper documentation. If done correctly and developed into a routine, the Seven Windows Counseling Process encourages employee respect for their supervisor because it lets them know the process by which they’re evaluated is consistent and fair, and it helps eliminate issues of personality or preferential treatment.

Bruce Evans is the fire chief at the Upper Pine River Fire Protection District. He arrived in southwest Colorado after serving as the EMS chief and as an assistant chief at the North Las Vegas Fire Department in southern Nevada. He also served at the Henderson (NV) Fire Department for 18 years as a fire and EMS captain. Evans is a NFPA fire instructor III and served as a college faculty member and program coordinator for the College of Southern Nevada’s Fire Technology program for 21 years teaching various fire and EMS principles. He has over 30 years experience in a variety of EMS settings and is the 2010 recipient of the International Association of Fire Chiefs James O. Page EMS Achievement Award. He is an adjunct faculty member of the National Fire Academy in the EMS Incident Management and Quality Management Training programs, serving as a technical writer for several of the courses at the NFA. 

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