"Aw, c'mon, Charles, ya big sis!" —my grandfather's dentist, ca. 1930, tapping on a foot-pumped drill and working without Novocaine, in response to my grandfather's pained question about how much longer the job was going to take.
I spend most of my time here at Writing Boots—most of my time anywhere, actually—talking about the keys to getting one's ideas across to others. And so little time talking from the perspective of the others—the ones being spoken to.
Well last week I got some bad news at the dentist. Some real bad news. Suffice it to say that over much of the next several months I'm going to be the one without the information, the emotionally vulnerable one, the one on the wrong end of the pointy metal things. The one who has to trust.
Why do I find myself in this situation?
Surely, it's partly because I'm willing to risk a lot to avoid being the communicatee.
I've also had some bad experiences with dentists and orthodontists.
My childhood dentist was a naturally kind Jewish liberal who I think did not really want to be a dentist. He was prone to temper tantrums, and occasionally threw dental implements over my chest, at his assistant. I last saw Dr. Fishman when I was in college.
The orthodontist my parents hired was named Dr. Haas, but he was about the right age to be an escaped Nazi concentration camp physician known for his cruel experiments in orthodontia. Dr. Haas actually attached barbed wire to my lower teeth in order to prevent me from pushing my front teeth out by a morally reprehensible swallowing technique that Dr. Haas called contemptiously, "tongue-thrusting."
I'll go into no detail about my dental problems specifically but I should say that one of them is that I still have 26-year-old orthodontic bands around my molars, because I was able to remove the barbed wire by mysef, but not the bands. (I hope Dr. Haas is dead now. But I remember he had a son.)
And the only dentist I've seen since then was Dr. Chu, who was a perfectly sweet Chinese man. "Hurt you? Hurt you?" he would ask every five or six seconds. But Dr. Chu required seven appointments to achieve a root canal. He performed two or three of them on me, and cleaned my teeth. Fifteen appointments. That was enough.
I haven't seen a dentist in five or six years.
And so now I'll be seeing the dentist a lot.
I think I've found a very good one. Based on my first appointment, here are a few observations:
1. It's not that people being told bad medical news don't listen very well. It's that they don't hear a fucking thing after the initial bad news is shared. I couldn't tell you 20 percent of what they told me about what's going to happen over the next three or four months. All I know is the date of my next appointment. And really, that's all I care to know.
2. First chill, then stupor—and then the letting go. It's actually a kind of comfort to be told something difficult, as long as the person telling it acknowledges that they know it's difficult, and has a stake in helping you fix the problem. Okay, Doc. What do we need to do?
3. It's possible to have dentists (and doctors too, presumably) with exquisit bedside manner: Who are tender, good-humored and exude openness to hearing your cries, your repetitive questions and even your gallows humor. (I told him the "big sis" story and he laughed.)
I'm in good hands, I think. I'll share whatever more I learn about communication—and God, I'd better learn something out of this—along the way.
Change whatever the dentist said to you to “I’m sorry, we have to let you go” and you know what people who have been laid off/let go hear and understand (as you point out, “they don’t hear a fucking thing after the initial bad news is shared”). And it’s just as hard for the survivors, who, like those close to you upon hearing your news, probably asked questions like, “Tell me again what they said?” “What happens next?” “What did they tell you?” — and didn’t get clear answers.
On a non-communication note, I hope the process isn’t as awful as you fear. Can you look into sedation dentistry? From what I hear, they put you out completely, which sounds to me like a much better experience than then ones you’ve had.
David Murray says
Right, Amy; while you’re telling the employee about severance package, Cobra, outplacement, etc., other questions are randomly screaming over you in the employee’s head in no particular order:
• How am I going to tell my husband?
• Should we cancel our vacation in January?
• Could I have made myself a little more essential to the company?
• Don’t cry, don’t cry, don’t cry, look cool, look cool, look cool.
• Hey, this is weird. I’m sort of relieved.
• What if I never work again and my kids can’t go to college and they always have to say it’s because Dad lost his job? (Will they still respect me?)
And so on. (And so. And on.)
During every bad-news communication session, another should be automatically be scheduled–for a day or two or three after the victim has calmed down.
“I’m going to give you as many details as you need now, but all this is complicated so I know you’re going to have lots of questions after the fact. You can call anytime, but is there a good day later this week for you to come back in?”
(Non-communication: These guys are great on sedation, and I’m all for it. It’s one of the reasons I love them. Just gotta schedule someone to pick up my bad woozy self after the appointment. Ridley, how about you?)
Ah, Dr. Haas. He wreaked havoc on many of my cohorts during his reign of terror in Ohio circa 1983. Good times.
David Murray says
You remember him!
He was a terrible, terrible man. I forgive my parents almost all errors in judgment in timid hopes that my daughter will forgive us ours.
But Dr. Haas. No. He clearly hated kids–I can still see his rawboned face with the scar near his mouth–and had the power to express that loathing, and they simply should have found another guy.
I went to school with his daughter (perfect teeth, naturally). She seemed a bit masochistic too.
Kristen Ridley says
Sure, I’ll pick you up from the dentist, David!
You’ll be woozy, drugged, vulnerable and suggestible to any little thing it might pop into my head to do or convince you to agree to, right?
After all these years of our friendly little “conversations” putting your drugged self into a vehicle at my tender mercies is the very LEAST I feel I can do to, um, I mean “for” you!
What time should I be there????
P.S. How do you feel about clown make-up?
David Murray says
Don’t thank me, Kristen. You’ve earned this day. See you Tuesday, noon.