Teaching Doctors How to Say “I’m Sorry”

Seven years ago, on a hill overlooking Portland, I taught fifteen medical students how to apologize. It wasn’t part of their curriculum. It wasn’t why I was invited to speak.

But life is about seizing opportunities. In this case, the opportunity was to transform the grief of losing a child into a teachable moment. Not by lecturing. Not even by telling a story. But by cajoling future doctors to say out loud the words I wished I had heard six months before.

What followed was a test case for the notion that you are what you say—and that what you say matters—a lot.

Sorry

The invitation came from an OB/GYN known in the community for being compassionate with patients, particularly those with difficult pregnancies. He wasn’t our physician, but he heard about us through the grapevine. And we knew him by reputation.

Regaining Center After The Bull Strikes

He came after me like a bull charging a matador.

“What’s your success rate? I need numbers. What percentage of your clients get promotions?”

These were fair questions for a prospective client interview, and I’d heard them before. But this man, an up-and-coming executive, delivered them with an intensity and ferocity that was surprising. He was testing not only my experience, but also my fortitude.

Bull attacking

“I’m not sure,” I stammered, suddenly feeling like a six-year-old boy facing the class bully in a far corner of the playground. “I, um, haven’t tracked that too closely.”

Six-year-olds don’t make good matadors. This bull tasted blood.

“Then what are you going to do for me? What…are…you…going…to…do…for…me?”

ASAP Is A Four-Letter Word

Want to get things done more smoothly and reduce the number of crossed wires in your life?

Then stop saying “As Soon As Possible” (ASAP). Today.

On the surface, ASAP is useful in conveying urgency. It says I’m in a hurry, so do this fast. It also rolls off the lips easily. The two syllables convey that you are serious and need results now.

ASAP sign

Unfortunately, as my first boss taught me twenty years ago, ASAP is one of the greatest sources of organizational conflict and suffering. Every time you say it, you triple the odds of misunderstanding, dropped balls, and disappointment. The reason is simple: ASAP means different things to different people—not sometimes, but all of the time. 

My Interview on Hispanic MPR

Hispanic MPR has posted an interview they did with me about my book, Practice Greatness.

This is my second interview about the book, and I am pleased by how well it went. Although I stumbled a bit early on, after about five minutes, I picked up my stride. We dug into some meaty questions, and I think he interviewer, Elena del Valle, did a really nice job.

To listen online or download the iTunes podcast, go to this web page

And please tell me what you think!

Trust Your Gut. Eat the Other Brownie

Sometimes it pays to trust your gut.

For example, many years ago I was at a Halloween party with friends, enjoying myself, when I came across two plates of brownies. One plate was labeled, “If you have nothing to do tomorrow.” The other said, “If you have something to do tomorrow.” In a festive spirit, I reached for a brownie on the first plate. It tasted good—rich and chewy, just the way I liked it.

Brownies

It was a small brownie, so I instinctively reached for another. And another. And another. After all, I thought, how much rum could they put in a little brownie?

After consuming five or six pieces, I stopped for a moment. “Why,” I said out loud, “are these pieces so darn small? It doesn’t make any sense.”

A guy next to me heard the question. “You’ll find out soon enough,” he said with a grin.

On-the-Job Experience Plus Deliberate Practice

It’s rare for major business journals to talk about experience-based leadership development. So I was pleasantly surprised to see an interview with Cynthia McCauley of the Center for Creative Leadership in Strategy + Business. McCauley describes why on-the-job experience, rather than formal training, is important to developing leadership:

Leaders who step into new situations face challenges that call for untested abilities. They continue to develop their capacities and successfully take on higher levels of leadership responsibility. That’s consistent with what we know about adult learning and development, too: People learn how to do things when they’re put in situations where they have to do them and practice doing them.

This may sound obvious, but few organizations build leadership development around on-the-job experience. Instead, they offer formal training and possibly mentoring or coaching. Therefore, there is a great opportunity to improve leadership quality by matching leaders who are good at learning with experiences that teach them what they need to learn.