Experts and empathy

I recently had a chance to interact with the healthcare system in a way other than routine preventive care or straightforward injury, and it was an interesting reminder about how people outside a system may relate to experts. I think of doctors as experts on the health system of my body, people I consult about what I need to do to stay healthy and what the best way to proceed is if I become ill or otherwise in need of care, because they’re educated in that particular system. But part of that consultation process and trust is that I expect them to be able to explain intelligibly what’s going on and why they’re making the recommendations they are.

I recently encountered a doctor who had initially given good care, but who gave me conflicting and unclear information about why he was making a particular recommendation for followup, despite the fact that I had spent time trying to carefully and kindly appreciate the information he did give and his effort made to keep me informed while also articulating my doubts and questions. He also became somewhat defensive and dismissive when I asked for more information, and I became frustrated very quickly. Being dismissed is a huge hot button for me personally, so this behavior poisoned the well very quickly and I ended up asking my regular PCP to weigh in as a second opinion on the best way to proceed.

This was an interesting experience for me, because once I was able to disengage from it a little bit emotionally, I realized that this is a very easy trap for an expert to get into, and it’s not unlike a type of unhelpful thinking I can get into in my role in technical support. When you navigate a system all the time, you know how it works, and it’s easy to be impatient when people don’t know how it works, or don’t understand the obvious-to-you value of your recommendations. But to be most effective in an expert role, you absolutely have to constantly use empathy to understand why the person consulting you wants to know something, and what they want to know, and how to communicate what they need to know in a way that’s going to be effective for them. Any time you neglect that effort, you’re likely to leave someone unsatisfied.

It doesn’t mean that answering their questions perfectly literally is always right, and it also doesn’t mean that answering the same question the same way is always right. Someone else asking this doctor the same question might have been looking for reassurance — I wasn’t. Or they might have been totally satisfied with “I just think it’s a good idea”. I wasn’t. This doctor missed an opportunity to pay attention, and notice what I might need. As experts, we miss these opportunities every day if we’re too wrapped up in ourselves and our competence and our opinions to see what the other person needs. It’s a sobering reminder that the hardest part of being an expert isn’t being an expert (although that’s plenty hard in itself) — it’s using that expertise to help others effectively.