Ross Fisher


Lessons from a Paediatric Surgeon on Empathy: Practice Just Being Yourself

Key Takeaways

On telling stories:

Stories work for people. Certainly, Garr Reynolds is talking about stories and how important storytelling is. As surgeons, if you put us in a room, if you put four of us in a room and gave us a beer, we’ll sit and tell stories all night long, good things and bad things, and that’s how we learn.

I’ve recognized that we learn more by sharing stories than we do by sharing facts of 32 cases, 24 complications, and that sort of thing. That’s how we communicate as people. I think that’s part of the understanding that is effective communicators tell stories, and people remember stories. It always struck me that comedians are remembered.

You remember a comedian’s story, but you won’t remember your professor’s story, because there’s nothing to attach it to. Once you can learn to tell stories that are important to your audience, that make sense for them, then they can build understanding on that, rather than just dry facts, because that’s like reading the telephone directory.

On delivering information with compassion:

We can make any topic complex, but that doesn’t work. We need to put it in simple but not patronizing terms that people will understand and explain what we’re going to do, at the same time giving them confidence that while we’ve made it simple for them to understand, we can do what we set out to do.

It’s a balance. Sometimes we get it wrong. There are no two ways about it. I think that’s an important thing in communication to recognize that sometimes the way you’ve done something just didn’t work, so the next time to be better. There’s reflection, but ultimately just being honest with people, just being who I am in a different way.

I’ve been learning recently that who I am with parents is different than who I am with my friends, is different than who I am in theater. It’s different to who I am when I play sport. But that’s the truth for all of us. Sometimes we need to be a little more confident or a little more quiet or a little more patient than we would be at different times. But that’s life.

Get rid of the script:

I’ve recognized that for myself and for people I’ve encouraged in presentations, if you get rid of the script, then you can talk to people.

The script, even though it’s yours, you’ll stumble over a word that’s not important. Then you stop, and then you panic, and then it makes it bad, whereas if you just talk, like we’re doing, then it’s a conversation. Then people will wait on you and give you more space. Then you can interact with them. The interaction is what makes a difference.

I spent a month writing the first talk, and then with a friend I ripped it up, because it just didn’t work. Then I spent maybe three months preparing, thinking, and then a month writing. Once I had the idea of where the story was going, then I did the story boarding of steps that I wanted to go through.

Then I broke it down just to facts, just to things that I was going to talk about. I knew that I was going to talk about what inspires me, about the kiss of life, about Hirschsprung’s disease, about the different parts in the talk, and I knew that I was simply going to go to those steps. The exact words I was going to use I had not planned, because I knew that if I planned individual phrases, it would just go wrong.

On tuning into the audience:

Yes. I would try and think what did they want from me, and how was I going to tell them what I had to tell them? It’s sometimes difficult, because some people think they’ll die when they have their toenails trimmed, and some people have major heart surgery and don’t even consider that death is an option. They’re just worried about the scar.

I was intrigued to find that different people need different things from what I think they need. There are things I need to tell them, but, most importantly, it’s what do you need to know? That I hope comes across in presentations, is that often speakers say, “I’m going to tell you this, this, this, and this.” But actually the audience just needs this, and they may not be the same.

Communicating vs. lecturing

It’s certainly something I find in medicine, that our colleagues worry that they don’t know everything about, say, Hirschsprung’s disease, one of the topics I spoke about. The point I make to them is once you accept that no one wants you to be the expert, they’re looking for your opinion, your insight, or your thought, even if it’s that you don’t know very much and why you don’t understand it, that is more valuable than simply repeating facts that other people know.

Of course, you’re an expert on who you are, saying, “This is what I think. What do you think?” Then it’s a conversation. Then it’s a discussion. Then it’s valuable, rather than simply regurgitating facts, and that I think then frees people to communicate, which means to talk between—that’s the calm—rather than simply to lecture, which isn’t. That’s a different way of sharing information.

On inspiration:

Okay. I think that inspiration is very personal to individuals and what it means for us. Originally I wanted people to share that in the audience, because I thought that would be fun. But I realized that makes people too vulnerable, particularly if you’ve never met the guy that sat next to you. But what our inspiration does for us is gives us the ability to see our inner self, whether it’s to run a marathon or to be creative or to get on with life and difficulties in it.

You see the potential to be something, and the something that you see is yourself. That’s what’s exciting. It’s not that you see a runner and think, “I could be that runner.” You see yourself in that runner. You see yourself in that dancer or in that difficulty, but you see yourself succeeding without those things that limit me.

Then I realized that when I lost those things that limit me, I don’t become my boss or somebody I respect. I become me on a good day.

What does it mean to speak like a pro?

Effective. Maybe that’s why I’m struggling with the idea of speaking like a professional. I’m not a professional. I’m not a professional speaker. I’m not even a professional educator. When I encourage my colleagues, I say to them, “You don’t need to be a professional. You don’t need to be completely slick. You just need to be yourself and then effective.”

If you communicate, if you engage with people, then it will work, rather than being the most polished, having all the style, all the kick, all the ideas. Just stand and talk to people. We do it every day, so why not do it when you’re on stage? There you go.

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