Stan Mackey* was a physician who had joined the hospital team a few years earlier. His introverted nature and matter-of-fact answers rubbed a few of the nurses and physicians the wrong way. He didn’t seem to notice the wake he sometimes left in his path. Personally, I thought he was one of the smartest physicians I knew. I loved consulting with him because he was a human encyclopedia of the latest trials and research and his mannerisms reminded me of one of my favorite professors.
On our first day of an eight-week workshop titled Self-Care in Health Care that I was leading for a group of physicians, nurses and staff to improve teamwork and staff communication, I saw the horror on one of the nurses’ faces when she said, “You mean Mackey is in this group? There is no way I’m going to stay in this group with him here.” She crossed her arms in front of her chest and sat down as she rolled her eyes. “One of us needs to leave, and it’s not going to be me.”
I thought, Well, this is what a mind-body communication group is all about: honest communication and a chance to bridge to each other’s hearts.
Just as I was beginning, Stan scurried in and sat down in the last open seat in the circle of chairs. His face was expressionless as he was still mentally reviewing his notes from the patients he had just finished seeing.
I began by creating rules of confidentiality, setting the guidelines for how we would use a talking stone, and asking that each person focus on herself or himself. “It may be tempting,” I said, “to hope someone else ‘gets it’ or learns how to communicate, but I would like you to focus on yourself. If each of us does that, we’ll be sure that everyone in the room is accounted for.”
The tension in the group was palpable. They couldn’t believe I would put doctors and nurses in the same group. As I was enrolling them in the workshop, they had expressed their hesitation. Their comments flooded my mind: “Shouldn’t the doctors and nurses be in separate groups?” “What happens to the rules of power and hierarchy?” “Whose idea was this anyway?” I took a slow, deep breath and reminded myself that, based on feedback, I could always change direction.
As I sent the talking stone around the circle and asked questions, I noticed Stan would give one-word answers. Then he would pass the stone.
I prompted the group to finish the sentence, “If I could speak from the heart, I would say…”
With a stone cold face, Stan answered, “I don’t typically speak from the heart, I speak from the head and mouth. Thank you.” And he passed the stone to his left.
I sighed as it became painfully clear that this was going to be one of my toughest crowds.
A few weeks in, there was a conflict between two of the other participants, and I noticed Stan’s face getting flushed. Once I helped the two of them navigate through the issue, I asked Stan how he was doing?
“Fine,” he responded.
“Did something happen while those two were talking? Did you feel any physical signals in your body?”
“Well, I noticed that your face was flushed and your ears turned red. Can you feel that as it’s happening?”
“No,” he replied.
I reached into my bag and pulled out a green fabric heart filled with lavender. I asked Stan to hold onto it in our group from then on. “Next time I ask you if you can feel your body and you can’t, could you focus on your hand and tell me, at the very least, if you can feel the green heart in your hand?” I asked. He hesitated and then said, “Sure, that sounds easy enough.”
The next time one of the nurses was speaking, she mentioned her divorce and that it was impacting her ability to be present with her patients and enjoy her work. I noticed Stan’s face turning bright red, so I asked the nurse if she could pause for a moment.
“Hey Stan, what do you feel in your body right now?”
“Nothing,” he replied. As I pointed to the green heart in his hand, he continued, “Uh, oh, I feel this heart in my hand, right?”
“Do you?” I asked. “Everyone take a nice deep breath in and out and soften your abdomen. You’ve all learned to allow yourself to relax into your seats and notice your physical body. Is it tense or relaxed? Just pay attention to yourself and allow Stan to pay attention to his body.”
“Stan, what do you feel right now?”
“This time, I can feel the heart in my hand…” Then he paused. “I can feel my feet on the ground…” We all sat at attention—this was the most he had said in four weeks.
“…And I can feel my stomach turning and constriction in my upper chest area. Now I feel numbness in my arms and tingling. I haven’t felt this since my own divorce…
“…My wife left me because she said I work all the time and I didn’t show up in our marriage. My patients always love that I know the best treatments and care about them. It’s probably better this way. I hope she finds happiness. I must say it’s awfully lonely for me, though, to know she’s not at home anymore—even if I’m not there.”
We all sat in silence after this unexpected burst of accountability, tenderness and vulnerability. It was clear that it was an unusual experience.
“Neha, what’s in this green heart anyway? I don’t normally talk about personal things.”
“What you just shared is perfect, Stan. That green heart is the gateway to getting back into your body and letting your physical sensations guide you. I think you’ve been relying pretty heavily on your head.”
As the group continued on, one by one, each person opened up. They discovered that Stan wasn’t the only one showing up at the hospital everyday as a superhero who hid behind a white coat while tightly guarding his own heart. They laughed, they cried, they learned and they shared.
Week eight arrived, and I asked everyone to gather in a circle.
“I believe some of our deepest desires in the world are to be heard and feel valued. We give an incredible amount to our patients, and this has been a time to slow down and share our hearts with one another to recharge ourselves. We’re going to end with something called a gratitude circle. This is an exercise of giving and receiving feedback. The person holding the talking stone will be receiving gratitude from the rest of you. Now, does anyone want to hear something that isn’t true?”
The room was silent.
“Good, because I don’t want you to fill in the silence by saying something that isn’t true. So if there is silence, I want you to trust that it’s because people are thinking of how to word what they’re going to say, rather than deciding it’s because there isn’t anything for them to say to you.
“For those of you on the receiving end, your only job is to notice the physical sensations in your body, practice soft-belly breathing and believe what is being said to you is true. Allow yourself to take it in, and just say thank you.”
We slowly moved around the circle, and we finally came to Stan. He held the green fabric heart in one hand and the talking stone in the other. He blinked a few times quickly, almost as if he was nervous to hear what was coming. One by one, each person told him how this time together helped him or her discover a man who seemed to hide behind his journals and knowledge as a way to connect and that they loved the bright soul that he was. They spoke of his beauty and his gentleness. They referred back to his vulnerability and sharing about his divorce.
Then the nurse who had despised him at the beginning of class blurted out, “Stan, I have to say, I was wrong about you, you really do care and you actually do have a huge heart.”
Stan looked surprised, “I had no idea I hid it so well.”
Silence fell over the room and tears began streaming down their cheeks. In that moment I had a deep sense that this work was my calling. I was going to dedicate my life to building the invisible bridges between our hearts and revealing that we are much more similar than we are different.
*names have been changed
Your Awareness Prescription
- When you encounter a challenging emotion or situation—in yourself or others—pause and take three soft, deep belly breaths.
- If you want to turn around a challenging relationship, get curious not furious.
- If you spend more time in your head than your heart, finish this sentence to connect the two: “If I spoke from the heart, I would say…”
To connection and healing,