When physicians say, ‘Thank you for waiting,’ the patients are much happier than if they say, ‘I’m sorry for being late.’ —Ellen Friedman, MD
Explore This IssueNovember 2019
The words themselves are also important, so Dr. Friedman advises choosing them wisely and considering their implications. She pointed to a study that showed physicians responding in one of two ways when they were late to an appointment with a patient. “When physicians say, ‘Thank you for waiting,’” she said, “the patients are much happier than if they say, ‘I’m sorry for being late.’”
The implication of apologizing for being late seemed to be that the physician had more important things to do in another room. When they were thanked for waiting, the patients felt the statement acknowledged that the physician understood that they too have important things to do. “Saying ‘Thank you for waiting’ can be almost like magic,” Dr. Friedman added.
Be Mindful of Tone
Tone of voice is another important aspect of communication, according to Dr. Friedman, particularly when speaking by phone, with no visual cues to support what you think someone is saying. Simply placing the emphasis on different words in a simple sentence can change its meaning in a variety of ways. For example, there are many implications for the simple sentence “I didn’t steal her money,” as follows:
- I didn’t steal her money. (Maybe someone else stole her money.)
- I didn’t steal her money. (I definitely didn’t do it.)
- I didn’t steal her money. (She loaned or gave it to me. Or I found it).
- I didn’t steal her money. (I stole someone else’s money.)
- I didn’t steal her money. (I stole something else of hers.)
“When you have a high EQ, you use a neutral tone of voice,” Dr. Friedman said. She also pointed to a study that showed that when researchers put dogs in an MRI machine and said nice things to them in a harsh or sarcastic tone, the aggression centers in their brains lit up. “Sarcasm isn’t lost even on a dog,” she said.
Beware the Email Gaffe
Because digital communication relies entirely on words, Dr. Friedman said it’s important to be mindful of what you put into an email, as it is easy to make a mistake that can haunt you later. Additionally, there’s no opportunity for immediate clarification if something is confusing or misunderstood. She also warned against forwarding an entire thread and advised physicians to double check the recipients of an email before pressing send.
“Use email only for sharing facts and data,” Dr. Friedman said, warning that email should never be used for anything controversial, political, or humorous; nor should it be used to resolve conflict, express emotions, or avoid face-to-face communication. “Don’t ever write an email when you’re angry,” she said. “When you have an emotion other than happiness or joy, do not put that in an email.”