I went to the hospital a few days ago, to have the staples removed from my abdomen. They were holding together the incision made by the surgeon a week or so earlier, to remove my womb and an enormous fibroid that had grown on it, which kept flinging its weight about and making me think of that scene from Alien.
It was major surgery and I’d never had an operation before. Having the staples out was a great opportunity to talk to a nurse and find out whether how I’m feeling is normal.
The nurse answered my questions and everything she said was positive, but I came away unsatisfied. I was reassured intellectually but not emotionally – because the meeting didn’t feel as if it was about me.
For a start, I struggled to get a word in edgeways as she surged from one anecdote to the next, about what her daughter is doing at school and how her mother, having been through all sorts of traumas, is getting very good at painting. I’m lying on a trolley with my trousers down – what exactly am I supposed to do with all these stories?
When I described a symptom, the closest this nurse came to empathy was to say, “Oh, I know,”, in a Sybil Fawlty kind of way. (My cultural references are bang up to date, aren’t they?)
When I asked her about my wound, she told me she’d had two Caesarians and some other operation that had involved opening her up along the same line. I sympathise… but I’m the patient here and your telling me it was worse for you is not helping.
Effective communication is so much more than what’s on the surface.
To most nurses, it’s obvious the role is not only the medical side but to soothe the patient’s soul.
In other situations, it’s less obvious that this is your role, but really it is.
In an interview, for example, what the interviewer needs from you is quiet confidence that you know what you’re doing and, if they choose you, they’ll be putting the job in safe hands.
When you’re training or presenting, the people you’re talking to may be anxious they’re not going to understand what you tell them; they may be worried you’re going to announce a change that affects their lives or their livelihoods. You don’t know what concerns they may bring with them but your job is to reassure them.
Next time you’re wondering how to put yourself across, assuming the mantle of a nurse or a doctor is a pretty good guide. You are the expert, but this is not about you: it’s about the people in front of you.