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“How” we communicate vs. “What” we communicate

By: Jennifer Shaer, MD

We learn at a young age that it’s not just what you say that matters but how you say it. Think about the amusement you see in children when they realize that when they say “You’re such a stupid dog” in a happy, playful voice, their dog responds enthusiastically and joyfully. 


But somewhere along the line, we seem to lose this understanding. We are often right with our words but wrong with our tone.  

Just this week, I received two complaints that highlight this issue. The first was from a parent, and she had many horrible things to say about a doctor she had recently seen. At the end of listening to her complaints, I was able to tell her, “Dr. X did everything right medically. What she didn’t do was communicate with you well, and I am sorry for that”.  

The second complaint was from an employee who brought an idea to her office manager. The employee told me that she felt completely dismissed by how the office manager immediately shot down her idea. After thinking about it, the employee knew that the idea wouldn’t work. She just wanted to feel heard and respected.   

Maya Angelou is quoted saying, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

Typically, when we are short with someone, rude, or dismissive, it is because we are feeling our own stress. So, take a pause and check your inner state before you react to someone. Often, we think we can hide our feelings and speak with our words, but most of the time, our negativity is felt regardless.  

When you are calm and grounded, it is possible to make someone feel valued and respected and still tell them “no.” This type of respectful and honest communication will positively impact patient care, office culture, and even your personal relationships, and it starts with you.  

It’s hard to look at our own faults. I am happy to be part of a company that is willing to look critically and strives to improve. And am especially grateful that the employees aren’t afraid to raise their hands and call on their leaders to do better when needed.

Dr. Jennifer Shaer is a pediatrician, the Chief Medical Officer of Allied Physicians Group, and a certified executive and life coach. In addition to general pediatrics, she spends much of her time coaching parents and patients on healthy habits, behavior, mental health, and breastfeeding. Dr. Shaer believes strongly in harnessing the power of the mind to maximize health and well-being and spends much of her time empowering teens, parents, and fellow physicians, to step up and live their best life. To learn more about her physician coaching services, click here.