Bob Frazer Jr., DDS
Prior to a teleconference on “Building Emotional Intelligence,” we received the following note: “I’m fairly effective in listening for and acknowledging someone’s feelings. Beyond that, I don’t know what the heck to do with them. Is labeling, acknowledging or validating (whatever the heck that means!) enough? I aspire to be an empathic helper and servant leader, but my gut response is to make people feel better. But then, I’m back in the rescuing game. I know rescuing does not equal help ...”
This doctor said what any of us who have tried to be empathic might have said. I suggest that this doctor’s premises are wrong. He believes that you’re supposed to do something significant when another person expresses emotions. Worse yet, he feels he should make people feel better. Deep down, he feels he should “fix” them. Most women reading this column know instantly this doctor is male from the way he posed the questions. Right, ladies? For example, you tell your husband or boyfriend that you’re feeling ________ because of what happened today. Instead of simply acknowledging your emotions, he says, “Well, if you just didn’t do such in such or work with so and so, you wouldn’t feel that way.” You could brain him, right? That’s not what you needed - you just wanted to be understood, not fixed!
Unfortunately, men - and indeed, most doctors - like to fix things ... even when the other person doesn’t want to be fixed. We naturally play Dr. Fix-it. So, what’s wrong with trying to make people feel better ... and if not that, what should we do? First, we need a new premise. When our premise is erred, then our question is faulty and the answer is useless. There are multiple faulty premises in the note we received from the doctor quoted in the first paragraph.
First, our doctor reports that he is fairly effective at listening. Good listening is critical, but remember the limbic (emotional) system is an open loop. That means when you’re with another, you cannot help but feel their emotions. Recall the research about three people who were interviewed about their current emotional state, and then sat together silently for 20 minutes. Afterwards, they were re-interviewed. Researchers found the most emotional of the three had affected the emotional state of the other two. Thus, one cannot avoid being impacted by another’s emotions. Being more attuned to emotions involves listening with all your senses.
Perhaps the better question is, “When I become aware of another’s emotions - particularly when they’re intense - how should I respond? In the doctor-patient setting, simply begin by checking out what you are sensing by inquiring, “You seem a bit anxious today. Is that right and is there anything I should know before we begin?”
Or, with an employee, you might say: “You seem upset.” Then, simply be quiet and listen. Reflecting what your employee says while genuinely trying to understand the events that surround the emotions helps a lot. When someone has experienced a great loss, all you need to do is abide with them. Webster defines abide as “To stand fast, to remain, to go on being.” Validating another’s emotion is a bad premise, since, in truth, emotions just are. You cannot validate or invalidate an emotion! The better question might be, “How long do you abide or stay with the emotion when you have work to do? And, how do you move on gracefully?” Generally, people come to you to have something done. So, after acknowledging and understanding, you simply can remind patients why they came and state that if they’re ready, you will proceed.
The worse thing to do is to try to fix or rescue patients from emotions. Our questioning doctor wanted to fix patients’ emotions so that he wouldn’t feel so uncomfortable! Most of us with a need to fix things want a lot of control. Why do we need control? Because somewhere we learned that when certain situations occur, if we don’t control them, something bad will happen. When control centers on emotions, nine times out of 10, it is what we learned in our family growing up.
Those who have followed this column know that my parents conflicted quite loudly and almost uncontrollably when I was young. So much so that, by age eight, I was “counseling” my parents using logic. Those emotional outbursts were scary! I carried emotional avoidance into my first years of practice. Through work with counselors, hands-on continuing education in effective listening, plus listening to others with high emotional intelligence, we can give up rescuing and the need for control ... and start truly helping.
Dr. Bob Frazer, FACD, FICD, is founder of R.L. Frazer & Assoc., whose custom programs help dentists achieve top 5 percent status in financial achievement and life balance (fulfillment with significance). Thirty-one years of quality practice and superb communication skills have propelled him to a 29-year speaking career. For information on “Building Emotional Intelligence Workshop,” 4/28-30 in Austin or the new audio series, “How To Build the Exceptional Life and Practice,” contact him at (512) 346-0455, or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit his Web site at www.frazeronline.com.