Look around any airport and you’ll see a plethora of stories unfolding before your eyes. Tearful departures and joyous homecomings are standard events in airport terminals the world over. There’s as much drama unfolding in airports as there are people. As an astute observer of human behavior, I’m always fascinated to observe people’s empathetic responses to other passengers and their loved ones. What a study in human emotion!
Last week there was a tearful goodbye in the terminal as a couple said goodbye to a young man. The boy looked to be about 10 years old. As he said goodbye to his loved ones, he cried along with the couple he was leaving. I had no idea what the story was. It could have been anything from his first trip to camp to the end of a nasty custody battle. Who knows? And yet, looking around at the responses from other onlookers I could see that the other passengers were tearing up along with the trio saying their goodbyes. Like me, I’m certain the onlookers didn’t know the back story or the people involved. But the fascinating thing is that by simply witnessing their raw emotions, many of the observers (perfect strangers) also got teary-eyed.
Humans are innately emotional and empathetic creatures. Even when we are not directly involved in a situation, we can, and do have emotional responses to events around us. Observing the onlookers’ responses in the terminal, it dawned on me that there are millions of situations in healthcare every day where people are observing others and responding emotionally even when they are not directly involved. Think about your waiting rooms. There are dozens of experiences every day where an interaction takes place between a patient and a staff member, yet are observed by several others. That means that the experience is no longer one to one. Any time the “story” is observed by others, those observers have an emotional response (good or bad) and the event becomes part of their life story as well.
The level of drama in your waiting rooms may not be the same as that observed in the airport terminal last week, but it has an impact just the same. Consider the responses described by two of our mystery shoppers who were waiting in waiting rooms and documenting their observations. In one situation, the mystery shopper observed a nurse come out into the waiting room and say to an elderly couple, “What are you doing here? You’re not supposed to be here today.” The words alone were alarming to the onlooker, but combine that with the nurse’s snippy tone and her hand on her hip, and you have a picture of an unwelcoming or even rude encounter. The mystery shopper described the words, tone, and posture, but went on to say, “I felt sorry for the elderly couple. They were obviously embarrassed by the nurse.” The interaction was between the nurse and the couple, but the reaction was felt by the eight others in the waiting room.
In another situation, the mystery shopper observed a nurse come into the waiting room, kneel down and take the hand of an elderly woman who had been waiting. He documented, “This was such a warm and tender thing to do. I could see that others around them were touched by the show of compassion.”
Human beings are empathetic creatures and will take on the emotions of those around them. This is why it is so important to remind everyone that they are on stage for most of their interactions. The interaction may occur between one staff member and one patient, but it’s observed by a dozen others.
I don’t think Shakespeare was talking about waiting rooms when he said, “All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players,” but it’s worth a discussion.