During a recent Las Vegas performance, an intoxicated concertgoer got on the stage and stood next to singer Celine Dion. This situation could have been handled in multiple ways, but Ms. Dion never lost her composure and handled the situation with grace and kindness. She brilliantly was able to diffuse the situation without anger while maintaining her dignity and that of the fan. The way she handled the situation and what she said to the audience afterwards can help each one of us manage challenging patient situations.
Ms. Dion did not react with irritation; she reacted with compassion. Security guards immediately tried to remove the fan, but Ms. Dion asked to speak with her admirer. Ms. Dion stated to the woman, “Let me tell you something. I’m glad you came on the stage tonight. I know you wanted to come closer to me. But you know what, I’m glad you came closer.”
Yes, I’m aware that in healthcare we don’t have a group of security guards surrounding us. Like myself, many of us have had to deal with unruly patients who could pose a physical threat. However, this woman did not appear dangerous. Could she have been dangerous? Yes. That was a very real risk. In healthcare, we must make snap decisions on our own safety with patients. Will Ms. Dion’s approach always work with every disorderly patient? No. However, in many cases, it works.
When the security guards came to help Ms. Dion, the intoxicated woman stated, “Don’t touch me.” Ms. Dion asked the woman if she could touch her; she touched the fan’s face. Ms. Dion stated, “You know what? We’ve got babies that we love, and we’re going to fight for them. And we’re wearing gold, that’s a sign.”
She told the fan that the security guards are her friends and that it is OK to go with them. The fan was gently taken off the stage.
After the intoxicated fan was escorted off the stage, Ms. Dion thanked the audience for their patience and used the experience as an example of compassion. Ms. Dion stated, “Some people go through a lot. And some people need to talk. And I want to say thank you to all of you. Because for maybe five minutes we have given this lady a moment to talk. And we heard you. And gentlemen thank you. You’ve done what you were supposed to do. I appreciate it very, very much. Thank you so much for your patience tonight.”
Avoid being angry. Ms. Dion never lost her temper, and we should follow her lead when working with patients. Over the years, I have worked with many angry patients, but I always stayed calm. Also, I never made the big mistake of saying, “Calm down.” Not one person in the world has ever calmed down after someone told them to calm down! I simply let them talk and share their stories. I have done deep breathing with patients to help them deescalate and focus on the situation.
Find commonalities. Ms. Dion found experiences that the two shared, such as both being mothers. She even noticed they were both wearing gold-colored clothes. Pointing out the similarities helped create a bond with the fan and keep her calm. Find commonalities with patients and point them out as a bonding experience. If your patient is wearing a t-shirt that says, “I Love Beagles,” and you have a Beagle, say something!
Express thanks. When the fan came to the stage instead of immediately calling security, she thanked her for wanting to be closer. She thanked her for being so interested in meeting that she came on stage. One patient I worked with carefully typed and printed her medical situation with clearly-written details. I thanked her for taking the time to organize the information. When patients take steps to improve their health, such as by eating a healthier diet or joining a gym, thank them for taking an active role in their well being. Ms. Dion also expressed thanks to the people who work for her, the security team. We must also thank the wonderful people we work with in our medical facilities.
Be empathic. Ms. Dion talked about “people going through a lot” and having the “need to talk.” Patients are going through a lot, and we must allow them the opportunity to talk. I am not saying we need to give them an hour, but giving them a few minutes can make a big difference. Start with empathy; connect with patients on an emotional level and then move on the medical information. First, show you care. Once patients know we care, they will more freely talk about their medical issues.
One of Ms. Dion’s most famous songs is The Power of Love. When working with patients, we must focus on the power of providing loving care.
Edward Leigh is founder and director, Center for Healthcare Communication.
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