Dr. Cole’s Conversation Lessons

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It had taken a couple of months to get to this point. It all started when our year-and-a-half-old son had diarrhea. It got worse. We took him to a local hospital, but they couldn’t figure out what was going on. He kept getting worse until even Jell-O went right through without changing color.

The doctors were puzzled, and we were scared. They suggested we transfer our son to a major children’s hospital. That’s what we did. He had been there two days when we met Dr. Cole.

Dr. Cole came into our son’s room and sat down with us. “We know that your son doesn’t have any of the life-threatening things we were concerned about,” he began, “I’m here to tell you what we think is going on and answer any questions.” I could hear my wife let out her breath, or perhaps it was me.

Dr. Cole Lesson Nr 1: You can’t have a meaningful conversation with people who are scared. Get rid of the fear before you move on to other things.

“I want to ask you some questions that will help me determine how to explain things to you. Will that be OK?”

We told him that would be fine with us. For the next five or ten minutes Dr. Cole asked us questions that told him about our level of education and knowledge of medical terms.

Dr. Cole Lesson Nr 2: Gauge your communication challenge before you begin explaining.

Dr. Cole told us to ask questions whenever we had them. Then he explained our son’s situation to us. His explanation was clear. He answered every question we asked. If memory serves, he didn’t use a single medical term. He stopped several times to ask us to “read back” our understanding of what he said.

Dr. Cole Lesson Nr. 3: Use the vocabulary your conversation partner uses and check for understanding.

Dr. Cole and the other physicians thought our son had diarrhea for so long without a break that it had messed up his system and wiped out gut bacteria necessary for digestion. Dr. Cole said that they would feed our son intravenously and see if the body healed itself.

Before he left that day, Dr. Cole gave us his card with handwritten number on the back. He said it was a special number that bypassed the regular answering service and went to someone who would reach him right away. We never felt the need to use it. What he expected to happen, did happen.

Dr. Cole Lesson Nr. 4: No matter how good your conversation is, make sure you have a way to respond if reality doesn’t turn out the way you expect.

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