The normal human response to threat happens faster than rational thought—it’s our emotions.  The big emotions always take center stage, and push rational thinking to the side. That’s why patients report that “after the doctor said the word ‘cancer,’ I didn’t hear anything else.”

Clinicians—especially physicians, trained to be scientifically objective—sometimes try to ‘get through’ an emotion by repeating information over and over. They mean well, but they’re wasting their time. Their patient will nod politely, and leave without really understanding anything. And then call with a boatload of questions, more anxious than before.

A better way to deal with emotion is to improve your empathy skills. Watch for emotion cues, notice that the patient’s emotions are taking over, and stop your history taking or information delivery. Acknowledge the patient’s emotion explicitly—check out our videos to see how we do it.

A word of caution: we don’t consider this approach to be a way to ‘fix’ strong emotions. Becoming more empathic doesn’t mean you will be able to calm your patient down quicker. But it can mean that you can enable patients to feel that you are with them, that you care, and that you can tailor what talk about for their benefit.