She told me her story. She lost her job and lives with unremitting pain. C (her name and most details have been changed) lives with a chronic disease that causes deep pain at unpredictable times. Although she had completed her most recent project on time and on budget, with raves from the client, she had been fired. Her exit review said that she hadn’t met performance standards– “Her direct reports says she shows disruptive and unpredictable flares of temper.” and “Her colleagues say that her behavior is unpredictable.”
When her supervisor gave her this demanding project, she had just been diagnosed. She had tried to explain that she wasn’t healthy and shouldn’t do this, but he told her not to worry. He valued and trusted her — she was the best at what she did and she should just keep at it. Couldn’t she see that this project was necessary to her career?
He had been her mentor and friend and now she feels betrayed because he didn’t listen to her. But she doesn’t know how she would do this differently in the next job. She feels hopeless thinking about her future.
I told her that she seems to have lost her ‘resilience’, she agreed. “How can I be resilient when my health is getting worse? I no longer believe in the the one thing I could count on, my strong relationships and success at work. I don’t know how to talk about what I need. More importantly, I don’t believe I’ll be heard.”
The sad fact is that most of us who live with invisible health problems feel misunderstood.
In this post, How Doctors Respond to Chronic Pain, the physician writer poignantly describes how he was busy scribbling notes as a patient described her extreme pain. When the patient suddenly shifted into complaining that he wasn’t listening, he felt defensive and angry. But when he thought about the interchange after, he realized that she was right. He hadn’t been listening to her. The author noted that physicians frequently ‘tune out’ their patients with chronic pain because they have few tools to offer that will actually improve the patient’s condition. Physicians and most healthcare providers (and coaches!) fall into the trap of feeling helpless if they can’t ‘fix’ something. And that helplessness translates into ignoring what the patient actually wants — to listen with empathy.
How does this relate to C? Despite my years of training and experience and even my personal experience in living with ‘unsolvable’ health conditions, when faced with someone’s emotional pain due to life with illness, my knee jerk reaction is to run toward the fire to put it out.
Fortunately, when she told me her story in our first call, I had just read this article. I took a breath before speaking and reminded myself I didn’t have a magic bullet to shoot down her fears. But I could let her know that I understand how difficult this is for her. And that together, we would work to develop strategies that would improve the situation.
I was delighted by her relief. She sounded (dare I say) hopeful? In time she will find renewed resilience.
Do you struggle to actively listen to another’s story of pain? Do you wonder what to say or do that will demonstrate that you have heard?
Do you struggle to feel heard? Do you wonder what to do to make it happen?
Go ahead, tell me. Tell us and post your comment. We’re listening.