Don’t Get Furious, Get Curious

I do a lot of commuting, and one thing that makes that time fly by are courses by The Teaching Company. With university-level classes on everything from history to philosophy to science to religion, it gives me a regular dose of intellectual stimulation.

The course I’m currently listening to is entitled “Medical School for Everyone: Emergency Medicine.” In it, Roy Benaroch, a pediatric physician, walks you through what it feels like to be an emergency room doctor. What does that headache really mean? How do you treat a snakebite? What role does family history play in helping create a diagnosis?

For me, as someone who loves both puzzles and science, but doesn’t love high-pressure life-and-death situations, it’s a great window into a fascinating profession without all the stress. And while all the lectures are fascinating, there was one line from one lecture really struck me.

As Dr. Benaroch notes, an emergency department doctor doesn’t get to know his or her patient well, doesn’t have a previous history or a relationship, and most importantly, doesn’t see people at their best. Instead, an ED doctor sees people when they are scared, in pain, or frustrated — sometimes all three.

Naturally, patients in the emergency department may forget pertinent details, or intentionally obfuscate, or even become defiant and difficult. And when that happens, an emergency doctor needs to remember a key phrase: “Don’t get furious. Get curious.”

When someone is being difficult or challenging, it’s very easy to get emotional and defensive. But that’s rarely constructive. Instead, it’s much better to open up, to explore what’s really going on, to see if we can delve deeper and see what’s truly bothering someone.

There’s a line from Pirke Avot, a rabbinic text, that says that we should “judge everyone in the pan of merit.” Rather than ascribing negative motivations to someone’s actions, we should assume good will and good intentions. It’s not always easy, but if we can do it, our conversations and our relationship become that much richer.

After all, if an emergency department doctor can do it, so can we.

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