Riding into work, I watched the cyclist in front try to weave through the gap between a bus and the curb. The bus was in the cyclist’s lane, having failed to move out into the road properly after leaving the last stop. The cyclist couldn’t quite fit through the gap, and he smacked the side window with his hand. Then he shouted something unpleasant. The driver moved the bus out, the cyclist hurried on, and following through I glanced at the driver’s profile. He had the inscrutable, hardened expression of one who spends his days in the firing line, bearing the brunt. The cyclist’s abuse did not seem to register. The driver had acquired the ability to absorb negative energy without displaying any sign of impact.
I wondered… do we do this, in medicine?
Meeting anger (or its junior relations, impatience, frustration, exasperation) is inevitable when you work in the public sector. Customers, clients, or in this instance, patients, interact daily with systems that are both leviathan and byzantine. They come in fear for their own health or the health of a relative. Even when things go smoothly, from an organisational point of view, disease can lead to sudden changes, it can engender disbelief that nature can be so cruel, and cause unexpected grief… with the result that people feel angry. How could it be otherwise?
During an advanced communication skills training course, I learnt (if I did not know it already) that anger is not a primary emotion, but a sign of something else, usually fear of the unknown, or uncertainty. Sitting opposite an actor who recreated the tenor of previous real-life interactions with terrifying accuracy, I let anger unfurl itself, allowed it to fill carefully measured pauses, and drew out the underlying driver. To do this required active listening and genuine empathy, but also a little of the bus driver’s placidity.
The natural reaction, when accused, say, of disgraceful inefficiency, of trying to save beds, of ‘writing someone off’, is to defend oneself. It is tempting to tackle the issues forensically, and explain in detail exactly why a certain management strategy is being recommended. As the doctor, you have the details at your fingertips, you know your subject. You can easily out-argue an angry patient or relative with hard logic.
But to win the argument is not the aim. That will not win them over. The desired outcome is to let the person express their underlying concern, perhaps one they haven’t yet acknowledged even to themselves, and to help them resolve it. The route may not be pleasant, if bad news has to be given and its implications explored. The result may be quiet acceptance that this is life’s lot, and there is little more that can be done. Thus goes the narrative in which we calmly defuse a hot situation.
But there are times when the anger displayed is disproportionate to the situation. The underlying problem may not be fear, but an unrealistic expectation of how the clinical service runs. Or the hyperbolic reaction of an individual who is hard-wired to access fury at a low threshold. Doctors and nurses who work in Emergency Departments will know this.
In these situations, it is not always appropriate to absorb and to adapt. Sometimes it is necessary to respond, and to tell it how it is… if that can be done safely. On these occasions, the authority that resides in medical staff comes into play. ‘Sorry, that’s just not possible,’ or, ‘I’m afraid we’re not getting anywhere, I’m going to have to ask you to come back when you’re feeling calmer…’ Doctors are allowed to call out unreasonable behaviour. It is reasonable to display personality, and to demonstrate normal human reactions to challenging behaviour. In my experience this encourages the angry patient or relative to recognise that the person they are talking to is not a faceless representative of the larger organisation. They are probably doing their best. They can be injured by words. The situation is difficult for all involved, doctor or nurse, and patient. Let’s work it out together.
Perhaps, if the bus-driver he had been able to do so safely, he should have braked, stepped out of his cabin onto the road, and asked the cyclist to be reasonable. Or perhaps not; you never know what’s going to happen on the roads nowadays.