Good day, team.
This week’s challenge is about the benefits of being able to emotionally connect with others. The following experience illustrates my subject this week.
Almost two weeks ago, I had surgery on my nose again. When I fell down the stairs a year ago, the emergency room surgeon did a superb job of putting my face back together. But after a year of healing, it became obvious that my nose was still not right and my ability to breathe was still impaired. My otolaryngologist (a fancy name for an ear, nose and throat specialist) and I determined that it was time for me to see a nose surgeon who could rebuild my nose.
I was apprehensive about this entire experience. After a year of healing, the last thing I wanted was to have surgery again. I discovered that the memory of something held in the mind is different than the memory of something held in the body. As I walked into the surgeon’s office for the first time, I found myself shaking like a leaf in a strong wind. A year seemed like plenty of time to recover mentally, but in my body, the memories of surgical procedures and trauma were still way too vivid, and the idea that I would subject myself to going under the knife voluntarily was frightening. “This is the right thing to do,” I tried to persuade myself. After filling out forms and a brief wait, I was ushered back into a spotless examination room where there were pictures of noses at various stages of rhinoplasty. (Did they have to name this surgical procedure after the rhinoceros?)
A kind, young gentlemen took my blood pressure and temperature, asked if I was allergic to any drugs, talked about the coming rainy season in Portland, and then asked if I had any questions. I was still trying to calm my nerves. “Well, no. I mean, I guess I just need to see the doctor to find out more.” He smiled, assured me that my doctor was quite simply the best at this kind of thing and left the room.
Geez, I thought. Why didn’t I ask any questions? I had a million questions and no questions, all at the same time. Frankly, I was just scared, and in that state, my ability to think of good questions was unavailable. The questions were in my mind somewhere, but at the moment, I couldn’t access them.
Shortly thereafter, a young, nattily dressed young man came swiftly into the room. He held out his hand. “Good morning. My name is Dr. Han, and I will be your surgeon.” I shook his hand quickly as he sat on the little black stool in front of my chair. A nurse came in and immediately walked to a computer that was off to the side. “Let’s see what we’ve got here,” he said and shined a tiny light up my nose. As he rattled off anatomical terms, the nurse typed furiously at the keyboard, and I realized that neither of these people had really made any connection with me at all. Dr. Han exchanged about two seconds of eye contact with me and shook my hand quickly and efficiently as he moved into examination mode, and the nurse acted as though I wasn’t even in the room. She was just the note-taker. Nothing was assuaging my fear, and in fact, I began to wonder if I really wanted someone who wasn’t taking time to know me to reconstruct something as important my nose, let alone operate on my face!
After five minutes of examination, Dr. Han proceeded to tell me what he would do to fix my nose. He was matter of fact in his description, and as he spoke, I realized again that although he was looking at me, he still didn’t see me. “Do you have any questions?” he asked. Again, I couldn’t access my thoughts. “Well, how long do you think it will take?” was about all I could muster, and before I knew it, he ushered me into another room where he took pictures of my nose with his camera. It seemed like he was more comfortable holding the camera up between the two of us. “Turn your face a little to the left,” he said. “That’s good.” I began to feel encouraged that perhaps he would make a more authentic connection with me if we weren’t nose to nose, so to speak. I mean, surgeons aren’t trained in emotional intelligence. They have too many other things they need to learn about surgery and medicine, right? So, perhaps he’s just shy and hiding behind the camera gives him some distance to make him feel more comfortable. I knew this would be over in a few minutes, and I still had so many questions. Mostly, what I needed was reassurance from him. I needed him to sincerely look me in the eye and ask me how I was doing. Mostly, I needed to be able to trust him, and I knew that it wouldn’t happen unless he could authentically respond from his heart.
“Can I ask you a personal question?” I asked. “Sure,” he responded, giving me an anxious look as color rose to his cheeks. “What is your suit made out of? I mean, it’s really beautiful fabric.” What was I saying? The minute the words came out of my mouth, I was aghast that I asked such a dumb question. He immediately rolled back on the portable stool and answered, “Oh, I don’t know, probably some kind of linen and silk.” He looked at me like I was some kind of lunatic. “Can I touch it?” Oh God, what was I doing? Reluctantly, he rolled forward slightly and held out his arm. I gingerly touched his sleeve with my fingertips. “Oh, that’s very nice.” I said. He gave me a cautious glance as he immediately stood up and left the room.
I sat there by myself in the darkened photography room. How could I have done such a stupid thing? He probably thinks I’m one of those desperate older women who prey on young reconstructive surgeons to help them recapture some long lost youthful beauty through surgery. Somewhere in my heart, I knew that my inquiry into his wardrobe was a veiled attempt to get closer to him. Maybe if I could reach out and touch him, he would be willing to make a more profound connection with me.
The note-taking nurse came in and without looking at me, asked if I had any more questions. My mind was blank. My heart was filled with angst. My adrenal glands were still pumping fear into my veins. I wanted to cry. “Nope,” I said. “I’m fine.”
On Thanksgiving morning, 24 hours after my surgery, my cell phone rang. I was too tired and nauseous to pick it up. Later that day, I listened to a voicemail from my doctor. “Hello, this is Dr. Han calling to see how my patient is doing. I hope you’re doing all right today after your surgery and have a Happy Thanksgiving. Please don’t hesitate to call me if you have any questions.” That’s nice, I thought, the surgeon took the time on a holiday to call to see how I was doing.
Looking back, this entire experience reminded me of the importance of developing emotional skills, or as we have learned to call it, emotional intelligence. What a difference it would have made if Dr. Han had held my hand for a brief second longer in that first handshake, looked me in the eyes and asked, “How are you doing?” before he launched into his examination. How much better would my experience have been if the note-taking nurse had taken a moment to connect with me to discover how I was feeling in that moment when she entered the photography room? Would I have felt better the next morning as they were preparing me for surgery because she showed some care and empathy for what I was about to endure? What about the admitting nurse who asked me for the umpteenth time if I was allergic to any drugs? What if she had stopped for a moment, taken my hand and asked if I was doing OK?
I recently was asked by a private college in Portland to volunteer for its new leadership program. They asked various local business leaders and professionals to coach a few students for a year in management and leadership skills. The focus would be on soft skills development. When they asked me on the introductory form to write a few words about why I think it’s important for a liberal arts–based educational institution to focus on teaching students about leadership, I wrote, “All too often, I have seen people who excel in their specific area of expertise — i.e, accounting, engineering, programming, etc. — get promoted into management positions only to see them fail, miserably. They are promoted because they are the best at what they do but have had no training in managing people, in leadership principals, in soft skills development. It’s like a computer that has great hardware and no software. They don’t have skills that help them increase their self-awareness or that allow them to connect with, inspire, persuade and encourage others. They are good at giving instructions but have no skills in coaching and mentoring others.”
And so it is with Dr. Han. I have no doubt that he has all the surgical skills I could ever need, and I am grateful for that. In fact, I wouldn’t want Dr. Han to replace one moment of his surgical expertise with an emotional outburst in the middle of my surgery. In that moment, all of his training and surgical skills are most appropriate. But for Dr. Han to really be successful, he will need to spend some time working on his emotional intelligence. He will need to learn how to connect with his patients so that he has a better understanding of how they are feeling. I don’t recommend that his empathy get in the way of his expertise but taking time to actually see the person he is treating will help him be a better doctor, a more compassionate healer and a more intuitive human being.
This week, spend some time focusing on your soft skills. If you’re going to have a difficult meeting with someone, rather than rush to get your point across, why not start by checking in with the other person to find out how he or she is doing? Make room for some small talk, if you can. It tends to level the playing field in a conversation when participants can connect emotionally first and then get into the facts. How about spending some quality time with your kids? Instead of getting home from work and giving your spouse and kids the obligatory “Hi” and a peck on the cheek, how about taking a moment to look them in the eyes and have an authentically intimate moment? Kids are great at giving in to the moment and are often brimming over with love and affection — which they love to share.
What about sharing performance information with team members? If you’re their manager, rather than telling them what you observe, how about asking them what they think first? How do they think it went? What was their experience? Rather than accomplishing your agenda of giving feedback, how about discussing their observations first? How about starting off a performance review by first observing the uncomfortableness of this kind of meeting for both of you and then asking how the person is doing? What stood out when writing the self-review and has anything come up that he or she wants to share before you talk about your observations? Or, how about when a team member is having trouble, are you willing to pay attention to them, to really listen while they speak?
In writing this challenge, I’ve been thinking about the times in my life when a truly authentic, emotional connection was made between me and another person. I’m happy to say, many memories come to mind. But one in particular stands out. My good friend Kate had a wonderful dog named Yuba for many years. Yuba was a big, scary-looking German shepherd who had a heart of gold. Every time I visited Kate, Yuba would bark and rush to the door to let everyone know I was coming. Upon opening the door, he would be right in my face, tail wagging, barking, barking, until I reached out and put my hand on his head. As I scratched his ears and told him how glad I was to see him, Yuba would quiet himself and really look at me. Eyeball to eyeball, heart to heart, soul to soul. In those moments of loving eye contact, Yuba let me know with his whole being that he was glad to see me. “I’m here for you,” he would say, “right here.”
This week, take a lesson from Yuba. Take the time to connect, open your heart, and trust that the person you’re looking at is worth your whole attention. It’s worth everything.
Have a good week!
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