One of the favourite parts of my job is when I get to dance with patients and their loved ones.
Not literally, of course. Dancing is just my name for sitting down with patients or their loved ones—or often, both—to work through stuff. And there’s always a lot to work through in medicine, and especially in mental health. From sifting through symptoms and teasing out a diagnosis to talking through treatment options and explaining implications, there’s always a lot to talk about. And dancing is a metaphor I’ve found helpful in thinking about how to navigate these conversations.
I’ve found it a useful metaphor for important conversations in general.
Dancing alone is just you and the music: it plays, you move. But dancing with someone? That changes the entire picture. Because now you aren’t just trying to move to the rhythm, you have to do it together. That means finding the rhythm and then moving to it—and not stepping on their foot while you do so.
What does that look like in these conversations? For one, it certainly means no monologues. But even more, it means being attentive to the other person—to what they want on both a surface and a deep level. And matching it often is as simple as validating what they are expressing, acknowledging that they are no less human for feeling very human feelings.
I see this especially in talking with the loved ones of patients, who sometimes feel like a third wheel in the doctor-patient relationship. Our duty of care to patients and our being invested in their interests means the patient comes before any relative. So I find that a key aspect of conversations with relatives is simply validating their worry and anxiety as very human. Even when I have to give them information they don’t wish to hear, like when I have to say I can’t give information that the patient does not wish shared, simply acknowledging their concern seems to go a long way.
But another aspect of dancing is that when two people are involved one is usually leading.
There’s something interesting about the person leading in a dance though: it’s a leading that happens alongside. You’re not way out in front, like a traveller. You’re right there, sometimes holding hands, often looking each other in the eye, always within reach. Whatever happens, the lead dancer needs to be able to adapt while maintaining the dance.
In a similar way, when dancing with patients and loved ones, I’m the lead, but it’s not a lead where I’m telling them what to do. It’s a lead where I’m taking responsibility for the dance itself. What that looks like is me being clear about what I’m hoping to achieve in these conversations. And the paradox is, the clearer I am about what I want in the conversation, the easier it is to be flexible about it.
What makes it harder to be flexible is when lack of clarity: when you’re unsure what you want, you don’t want to risk giving anything up because you’re not sure what might end up mattering. But when you know exactly what you’re prioritising, it’s easier to let go of so much else as long as you can work out a way to that.
And that’s my favourite thing about the dance metaphor: it’s collaborative. It reminds me that just as the next best thing to hearing great music is sharing it, the one thing better than doing something for someone is doing it with them.
Who will you dance with next?