You’re a clinician in the health care arena. This means you graduated from a demanding education program alongside other outstanding students, you were likely making respectable money out of the gate, you’re well respected by the public, and, most important, you’re making a difference in society as a highly engaged member of a vibrant profession that’s consistently near the top of the charts in job opportunities.
In short, you’ve arrived! By all appearances, you’ve got this career thing figured out. You’re living the dream. Congratulations!
But now let’s look behind the mask. It’s true that working as a clinician in health care can be a wonderful profession, and you worked hard to get here. But you didn’t graduate only into a career. You graduated into the real world—a place where things aren’t always as they seem, and where navigation can be tricky. To wit:
- You’ve racked up twice as much debt as you’d planned on, and the repayment schedule threatens to stretch all the way until you’re eligible for your AARP card.
- Your health suffered during those “carefree” school days, when you always were studying like mad, downing far too many energy drinks, and ordering dinner from the vending machine. So now, despite the fact that your job is all about health and wellness, you’re carrying around at least 25 extra pounds. You’re not so sure you even dare get your blood sugar or cholesterol level checked.
- The new job is great, but you moved across the state to take it. Adjusting not only to new co-workers, but to everything being new—is frankly a lot tougher than you thought it would be. You’re coming home to an empty apartment and eating most of your meals by yourself. You’re lonely.
So, to recap, you’re happy. Overall. Pretty much. You’re happy, with caveats. Things are happening in your life that your coworkers don’t see, and that you’d feel more comfortable sharing with people you’ve known longer. I get it. I’ve been there. In some ways I’m still there. Everyone has his or her issues, concerns, and roadblocks, whether they are external or self-created.
Two of the most popular answers in casual conversation to the question “How’s it going?” are “I can’t complain” and “It’s all good.” Those responses are fine, to a degree. It all really is pretty good—and anyway, nobody wants to hear us complain. But there’s another way to think about the trials we all go through—a way that can help patients, and that, thus, can help us be better at what we do in the clinic.
Granted, the last thing patients need is a whiny, sad, or grumpy-faced health care provider caring for them in their hour of need. They need encouragement, support, and an upbeat attitude to help them get through what may be 1 of the roughest times of their life.
They also will benefit, though, from knowing that we’re real—that we, too, bleed when cut, struggle, sometimes, to keep our head up, and wonder, on occasion, when or if we’re ever truly going to have this thing called life mostly figured out.
So, how might “being real” actually look, in our role as a health care provider, with regard to our patients? Wellness coaches learn to dial this in on a daily basis, and the lessons learned may be helpful. There’s a fine line between what’s appropriate and what’s not, but walking it is worthwhile. So much of our effectiveness with patients is not solely about our head knowledge. It’s about connecting with what’s in patients’ hearts. It’s about letting them know that we truly can and do relate to what they’re going through, because we’ve stood in their shoes.
With that in mind, here are a few tips from the world of wellness coaching for how best to share the real you (and make a real connection) without shifting the focus from where it should be—on the patient
- Mention, don’t dwell. For example, if a patient says she’s been struggling to find the time to work on her home exercise program, don’t take that as your cue to go off on the stack of time commitments on your own plate. Rather, say something like, “I totally understand that. I’m going through something similar. I’ve been negligent in my own fitness program. I have to carve out the time to do it. I’ll tell you what: How about we hold each other accountable? You ask me how my exercise is coming along each time we get together, and encourage me to keep at it, and I’ll do the same with you regarding your home exercise program. Does that sound like a plan?”
- Ask for permission. When an opportunity arises for you to use 1 of your own life lessons to advise or encourage a patient, don’t just jump in with the account. Ask first if it might be helpful to him or her for you to tell a real-life story about something similar you faced, how you addressed it, and the result.
- Keep it short and sweet (or at least short). Even with permission to speak of your experiences, therapy time is all about the patient, not you. If it makes sense to share a story from your own life, try to tell it in 90 seconds or less. Remember, the patient is not your counselor. The purpose of telling the story is to help that individual, not to give you a sounding board.
- Get feedback. Clinicians in the health care arena often work in open settings. Our conversations can be easily overheard. Tell a coworker or supervisor what you’re doing. Ask that individual to listen in a time or 2 to critique your attempt to better relate to and motivate the patient. Later, ask what, to his or her ears, you did right—and what you might have done better.
At various times in its history, Coca-Cola has advertised itself with variations on a theme of authenticity that’s rather amusingly ironic, given the soft drink’s ingredients: “The Real Thing” (1969-75), “Real” (2003), and “Make It Real” (2005). In your role as a health care provider, skip the sugar water but heed the message: Give patients a sip of the real you. It has real potential for better outcomes, for them and for you.