Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Simple Things We Do Matter

Key Points

  • We can affect how others feel and behave in everything we do
  • Mindful actions can have powerful outcomes
  • You don't need to be a leader to change people's lives
  • We are all immensely influential whether we like it or not
  • That influence can be negative or positive: it's our choice

Yesterday I had to go to the doctor’s surgery. Now this sort of an event can be anxiety producing for many people for lots of different reasons. In my case I wasn’t overly nervous but I was having a nasty procedure being done, had not been to this surgeon before and was in an alien environment. The receptionist I dealt with (there were two) was very curt, never looked me in the eye, was unwelcoming and clearly didn’t care at all about me, the patient. I sat down to fill out a form she gave me and dutifully returned it with my Medicare card: same response.

The nurse came to get me and she was as cold as ice too: distant, no warmth, probably wished that I was not there and that she was somewhere else too. She prepped me and I waited quietly until the surgeon turned up. He was pleasant, calm and very reassuring but, typical of many surgeons, made no attempt to create rapport or involve me in what was happening: even though it was to me. By this stage I had decided that there was a nasty affliction that had caught hold in this organisation, and perhaps even this corner of the globe.

Being a psychologist doesn’t necessarily mean that one has the capacity to do what one preaches. You’ve all heard the saying about the cobbler’s children, I’m sure. I’m just as likely as the next person to mishandle my life. But, in this case the mindfulness that I talk about incessantly at the moment kicked in and I decided to take control, for my own good. So, I sought to engage with the surgeon, as a starter, and after a few probes found out he had a new grand child. I won’t go into the step by step way we got to this but it had to do with using those influencing skills that we have all learnt in workshops at one time or another: mirroring, priming, that sort of thing. It turned out the nurse has eight. Clearly the folk breed a lot in this part of Queensland.

In a flash the temperature in the little operating theatre went up a few degrees and got even warmer as we discussed the wonders of love, a second chance at parenting and so on. Interestingly the surgeon had previously been huffing, puffing and snorting, not so quietly, as I bled all over the place. He couldn’t use adrenaline in the anaesthetic because it doesn’t like me and I take medications that stop me clotting. I had also insisted he take a very wide excision, twice the recommended size based on some recent research I had read. He had a agreed but clearly having patients being involved in decisions about their treatment was a bit of an alien concept. Once we got into the grand kids he told me how well I was doing, that the bleeding was not so bad, and all was well: I obviously had his approval. I’m confident he did a better job as he became a bit happier, although I have no evidence for this other than the research (see below). We will never send each other Christmas cards but it was a much better experience for all of us than it might have been.

There is ample evidence that a positive relationship or experience with medical staff improves the outcome for the patient in all sorts of health settings. This includes even outcome from surgery where interaction is clearly minimal before and after the operation. In addition to a caring interaction (warm) in which the focus is on the patient other factors are, a positive attitude, confidence on the part of staff, an expectation that all will be well, provision of information and a sense that all is under control, are important. Most of this is about expectancy of course.

I think there is every reason to suspect that this sort of behaviour can affect all sorts of outcomes, not only those associated with health.

Same thing happened with the reception area. Within half a minute of concerted effort on my part the receptionist was chatting about her garden and how the rain would help, smiled and was looking me in the eye. The other soul quickly joined in.

Drew Dudley has a neat TED talk that you may have watched. It’s quite short if you haven’t and is worth a look. He talks about how we can have a powerful influence on others, and sometimes never know it. That we ordinary folk can affect others. That we don’t need to be ascribed leaders to do so.

I wonder how often we miss this opportunity to try and lift others, to be aware that we can make a difference. The trick I guess is to get out of automatic mode, what Daniel Kahneman calls Fast Thinking, and get into Slow Thinking where we can take control of ourselves, our situation. This requires effort, of course, willingness and a little bit of mindfulness.

It is quite likely that at a subliminal level at least, we can affect not only how people feel but also the outcomes of projects, organisational objectives, and events of all sorts.


  1. Your experience of cold customer interaction (I won't call it service)is being replicated across all industries. People seem to be losing how to connect in real time. Customer Service is a thing of wonder when we do experience it - as we have got so accustomed to doing without!!! How little does it cost to share a smile? Most people are complaisant and don't care enough to try - you are to be congratulated for taking the time to make the doctor and staff engage with you. All parties were clearly better off for the experience and the outcome improved. People get so used to dealing with faceless people via text, email, telephone or social media etc. We are becoming a county of customer numbers, order numbers, numerical IDs and codes with staff feeling threatened if they have to deal with a customer/client who is living & breathing and standing in front of them.

    1. Indeed, this is true. But the key is to make a difference. Change them and change their response. You then end up changing your personal experience.

      Thanks for responding.