Asking the Right Questions Part I: Space

At the training I facilitated last week for 35 nurses and social workers in Fayetteville, we talked a lot about the importance of asking the right questions. The right questions aren't ones that you already know the answer to but ones where you give the person receiving the question power and respect. Asking the right questions is a two-part challenge: you need to consider the questions themselves (content) and the space (environment) in which they are asked. In this post, we'll talk about the importance of space.

One of the keys to asking the right questions is to pay attention to the physical space or environment where the questions are being asked. Think about telemarketers. The person calling could care less if she is interrupting your dinner. They don't care about environment; just completing the call. But environment matters to you, the end consumer. You are going to be less likely to respond to anyone's questions, no matter what they are asking, if they call when you're rocking your child to sleep. By their very nature telemarketers can't tweak space much in their favor; they will always be intruding. But professionals like your child's dentist can and should.

Duke Street Pediatrics in Durham has spent a lot of time thinking about space. The waiting room has a tropical fish tank, games, books, interactive videos and more. It's not a waiting room; it's a play space. Even the restrooms are ocean-themed, complete with step stools for the small kiddos. The play theme continues in the "clinic" space which features an open floor plan, plenty of interesting wall art, the standard treasure chest, help yourself stickers and plenty of stuffed animal pillows. When my daughter and I were there a few weeks ago, Dr. Keels was talking to a teen seated near us and was able to toggle back and forth between her computer and the patient as they talked. My daughter watched with the older girl with interest. No scary shut doors here. 

Space matters. You don't have to be a pediatric dentist to make the environment where you see clients feel friendly and safe, though. Primary care physicians, for example, often do pap smears as part of an annual well woman visit. Why not place a simple mobile or windchimes above the exam table? All ob/gyn offices should have this as a general rule! Easy and cheap distraction for a female patient who might be triggered by a cervical exam or who suffers from vaginismus or is "just" anxious about being flat on her back exposed. My own office has low lighting, essential oil diffusers and soft pillows everywhere. When I do professional trainings like the one in Fayetteville last week, I pay a lot of attention to how the room is set up, how much natural light there is, the location of the restrooms. Boxes of Kleenex are scattered around and there are mandalas, colored pencils and jelly beans on each table. This is a trauma-informed approach to providing service: taking into consideration the impact of past trauma and making changes so your own approach is more sensitive to others' possible needs and triggers.

When you truly want to connect with patients, you must consider the space in which you want the connection to happen. This is especially important to connect with a population that has a harder time with trust, like abuse survivors. And being able to connect with your clients is everything. It's why you do what you do and frankly, one of the reasons you have a paycheck: satisfied clients come back. Without a good connection, you become a bank teller of sorts. Perfunctory and efficient but utterly lacking in empathy, curiosity and care in approach. 

Considering space is leading with empathy. And that's always more powerful and profitable in the long run.