Difficult patient? Try curiosity

Not long ago, I wrote about the power of questions, and how asking more questions can help you be smarter, more effective, and a more efficient communicator.

Soon after, I read a very compelling piece in the New Yorker. The essay, Curiosity and What Equality Really Means, was adapted from a UCLA commencement speech delivered by physician Atul Gawande.

Gawande discusses the experience of treating a patient who was combative, bigoted, and unjustifiably critical. Another physician refused to work with this patient who was hurling invectives at them—a perfectly reasonable response given the circumstances.

Caring for this patient was tense and uncomfortable. How was Gawande eventually able to defuse the tension?

As soon as Gawande said, “You seem angry and like you feel disrespected,” the patient’s aggression declined considerably. The patient opened up and Gawande listened to the sources of his hostility. Gawande didn’t end up liking him any better, but he understood him much more.

Engaging our curiosity with people we find hard to understand, who are different from us, or even who we find hard to get along with enhances our ability to provide excellent care and collectively address challenges.

Curiosity is about listening, and caring about what we hear as much as it is about asking questions. It shows our interest in understanding a patient’s or other individual’s struggles and fears, which builds trust. As Gawande writes, health care providers can soothe patients by just recognizing and acknowledging their feelings. On top of that, it can help us tailor the way we interact with a patient or other individual to ensure the most productive relationship possible.

Curiosity improves our patients’ lives—and our own. For my part, I’ll reflect on interactions with others. A good goal will be to get curiouser and curiouser.