There’s a parenting technique called “mirroring.” Basically, the idea is that you put aside your own thoughts and perceptions for a moment to really listen to the child’s point of view, no matter what that might be.
For example, my daughter doesn’t like fitting rooms, especially the ones with a curtain. She is certain that someone is about to whip open the curtain and see her in her underwear, so she will never try anything on. I have to admit that sometimes this drives me crazy. Don’t get me wrong – I have my share of hang-ups, but someone crashing through the curtain when I am trying on clothes is not one of them.
This was us recently:
Daughter: “Nooooooo, I can’t try those pants on. Someone might come in!”
Me, rolling my eyes and sighing: “No one is going to come in.”
Daughter, getting more agitated: “Yes, someone could come in! That curtain doesn’t even cover the doorway!”
Me, sighing again, loudly: “No one is going to come in. Just change quickly.”
Daughter, frowning and speaking loudly: “It doesn’t matter how quick I change! Someone can still come in!”
Me: “I will stand guard.”
Daughter, standing up, arms crossed: “Nooooooo! Someone can still push by you and come in!”
And so it went, until we finally gave up and left the store, both frustrated. With no new pants.
If I were mirroring, like a good parent, the exchange would have gone a little more like this:
Daughter, looking horrified: “Nooooooo! I can’t try those pants on. Someone might come in!”
Me, looking her in the eye: “Yes, that would be embarrassing, to have a stranger walk in on you while you were changing. The curtain is just a piece of fabric, it’s not like a door that can lock. I will hold it closed because I don’t want anyone to walk in.”
Daughter, calming down because she feels listened to: “Hold it tight. I will change quick.”
It may not have been that easy, but you get the point. When a person feels understood, they feel safe. They feel that their perceptions matter and they spend less energy on maintaining a negative state and more energy focused on figuring out a solution and feeling good about what is happening. In fact, psychologists say that mirroring can defuse just about any situation.
I recently had the great pleasure of speaking at a conference for patients with progressive blood cancers that are very similar to CML. The one big difference is that treatments are only just evolving. I spoke about being a patient and how it is sometimes difficult to live with cancer, even though I am able to take medication to stay in remission. When I was finished, a woman in the audience stood up. She was holding the hand of the man beside her as tears ran down her cheeks. “I am so afraid to live with cancer,” she said. “I can barely say the word. My doctor didn’t tell me it was cancer at first, but then I went home and looked it up. When I saw the words ‘blood cancer’ I was devastated.”
A great conversation ensued among the crowd about how scary it can be, just knowing you have cancer, and how sometimes it can feel so sad and isolating to live in the “cancer” world of appointments and tests and uncertainty.
I am always interested in hearing the thoughts of doctors about these types of patient discussions, so I was excited when a top specialist went to the podium.
“We don’t tell patients that they have cancer when they are first diagnosed because they worry,” he said. “You have treatments. You shouldn’t be upset. You should be happy. You should be enjoying your lives.”
In less than 30 seconds, he had basically taken all the fear and all the sadness that had just been poured out into the room, boxed it up and marked it, “Doesn’t Matter.”
It’s no secret that there’s often a disconnect between how doctors and the people themselves perceive the patient experience, so his comments weren’t too surprising. That he would choose to respond this way to patients who were obviously distressed did catch me a bit off-guard.
At the break, I was approached by many patients who wanted to continue to share their experiences. They needed to hear that how they felt made sense and mattered. And while the doctor’s comments were meant to encourage and reassure, the exact opposite had happened – fear and uncertainty now seemed even larger and more overwhelming. But in true patient style we rallied together. Some surrounded the woman who was crying and shared stories of how terrified they felt when they first heard that they had cancer. We listened as only fellow patients can. We hugged and told each other that we understood.
This all happened in a little room in downtown Toronto. Maybe it should be a goal for 2016 to get this “mirroring” into doctor’s offices. Imagine how this type of communication would change not only the patient experience, but also health outcomes. We’d be able to share our fears and concerns freely, without judgment. At the same time, our doctors would have critical insights into how we perceive our health – an awareness that could greatly impact crucial things, such as whether or not we take our medication the right way.
Perhaps this is something to add to my wish list: new communication styles for our care providers. More on this later. In the meantime, from everyone at the Canadian CML Network, may your New Year be full of peace, health and empathetic communication!