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  • Daniel Stern Serviansky

The Importance of Feeling Feelings

Updated: Sep 18, 2019

Medical background with human brain

{5 minutes to read} A few words for professionals on the importance of feeling feelings:

As a mediator and trainer, I sometimes find myself in the position of workshopping listening techniques with doctors, including psychiatrists. Human emotion and communication are generally their province. But, with respect to one key component of human activity — conflict — society places lawyers and other ADR professionals in charge.

Due to this designated role, twice over the past year I have found myself in the position of advising physicians on communication in conflict. I approach that opportunity with humility, but also with the knowledge that we are some of the few in society who are tasked with moving toward conflict and structuring human interaction within it.

I want to share a particular exchange I had with a doctor at one of these sessions. He asked me about the common belief among doctors that they should not display their feelings. With patients, he wanted to make sure that he was concentrating on their feelings rather than betraying his own. The conversation in the room turned toward other fields of medicine, with a colleague who is a psychiatrist citing the example of a surgeon. As she phrased it, "We do not want a surgeon working on a tragic case to cry tears all over a sterile field."

I felt lucky at that moment to be allowed to share in this internal conversation within the profession, about what a doctor should be and what society expects of them as far as what they show of themselves. My answer was:

“I want to highlight two facts about the human condition.

  1. We have a bias for seeing patterns.

  2. We have a bias for ascribing intent.”

I went on to say that, for these reasons, I believe a patient will observe everything a doctor does and inevitably draw conclusions about the intent behind it, including feelings. This means that doctors should start with the assumption that patients will ascribe feelings to them.

The question you are left with is whether you are managing what feelings are ascribed to you. Now, attending physicians are properly in charge of patient care, and I cannot advise what they should ultimately do in any given case. What I can tell them is that if they accept my premise, and if there is no treatment goal to the contrary, then they would do well to show their human side in a managed way.

Showing Feelings

Let’s turn to the question of how to show feelings in a professional context. There are a few ways:

  • Active listening,

  • Empathy looping, and

  • Acknowledgement.

Each of these are possibly the subject of at least one post on their own, but I will address them briefly here:

Acknowledgement is the act of validating the human existence of another. It varies culturally from company to company, hospital to hospital, and certainly from location to location. In the American professional context, it generally involves making eye contact, and perhaps a nod at a certain distance, often something like five feet. And, if closer than that, it is often a handshake and the exchange of a few pleasantries. (For the underlying theory, see the work of Adam Grant and Chris Porath, starting with this video.)

My suggestion, (subject always to the attending physician’s judgement), is to acknowledge patients as you would any other person. In doing so, you remind them — and yourself — of your shared humanity.

Active Listening. When taking a patient’s history or listening to a patient’s story, lean forward, make eye contact again, and use short vocalizations to encourage the patient to continue and to show that you are listening.

Lastly, there is Empathy Looping, picking-up where active listening leaves off. When you are done listening to a patient, summarize what you have heard, concentrating primarily on them. Focus your summary on:

  • Their feelings;

  • The symptoms they described;

  • Whatever seems salient to them, regardless of medical relevance.

Then, take a moment to describe any feelings you are feeling. For example, "these are difficult things to talk about," or "this makes me sad to say."

And most of all, keep in mind that your patient will not necessarily interpret silence as professional. They may interpret it as an absence of feeling or as inhumanity; with the limited communicative efficacy of silence, the signal the patient receives may be very different from the signal that you intend.

In short: remember the importance of feeling feelings, and the importance of being seen to feel feelings.

Daniel Serviansky


(212) 655-9793



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