Is this about me, or you?

Cartoon doctor

Listen and respond

A senior consultant physician is employed to teach young doctors. Nothing odd about that, is there?

What if the subject that she teaches is not medical but communication? Does that strike anyone as unusual?

OK; but what if the detail of her lesson does not teach the student how to communicate well with someone the news that they are dying but is concerned, instead, with lessons as to how best assuage the feelings of the young doctor whose job it is to impart said bad news?

To put it another way, the health service pays seniors to teach juniors that however much it upsets them to bring deadly tidings to the terminally sick, they still have to do it.

To many people, this will sound completely bonkers. This is not about the feelings of the person delivering the bad news, which are largely irrelevant in this instance, they might say, but about the feelings of the terminally sick recipient.

Well yes, and no.

Like all human communication, this is not a binary event or undertaking and there is no hierarchy as to the people involved in this real-life event. The terminally ill person, their families and friends, the doctor and those supporting her or him – all are involved and all have feelings about the matter. All of those feelings are relevant to the effectiveness, or not, of the communication.

The crucial aspect is that good communication is key to getting something like this right first time, because there won’t be a way to ‘unsay’ the wrong way.

Talks about death are difficult and require empathy and honesty first and foremost from the persons in the conversation. They do not work well when key aspects are hidden behind artifice designed to spare feelings. Bad news, and good, is better received when it is easy to understand. That is the only way to respond and react to whatever that news is.

Knowing something is always better than not knowing, unless you’re an ostrich. And that head-hiding analogy has been proved to be a myth.

Personally, I like the Gina Miller approach: “I come from South America and it’s part of our culture to speak out. It’s a lot healthier. There’s a big difference between being respectful and being restrained. I am more interested in teaching my children empathy than subscribing to our ‘me’ culture and obsessing about ‘how do I feel’ all the time.”

Effective communication is always about all of us, right up to the time one of ‘us’ is no longer there to listen and respond.