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Communication: The "Split Chin" Approach
By Phil Van Hooser   Printer Friendly Version

It was just another normal morning for me. I had already kissed my wife and two young children goodbye and was headed out the door for work. Just before I stepped off the porch, I heard it. I stopped dead in my tracks. It was a scream from one of my children. A scream that in its primal urgency and volume unmistakably communicated that someone was hurt.

Without hesitation, I rushed back into the house. Quickly, I began the search for our children. Within seconds I spotted our one-year old daughter, Sarah, playing contentedly in the living room floor. There was obviously no problem with her, so the injured one must be Joe. But where was he?

As I left the living room headed for the dining room and beyond, I was joined by my wife, Susan. She too had heard the scream and was on the same search and rescue mission as me. Together we rushed through the dining room and into the kitchen. There we found our three-year old son, Joe, picking himself up off the floor. Blood covered the front of his shirt.

His injury was an obvious one - a split chin. As we wiped, cleaned and applied direct pressure to the wound, Joe shared his story through his tears. It seems he had gone into the kitchen and climbed onto the counter intending to retrieve some item. Unfortunately, he lost his balance, falling chin first onto a tile floor. The result? A cut on his chin I call a "gapper." A cut that a Band-aid would not cure. Unfortunately, Joe was about to get his first stitches. But, we didn't tell him that yet. That time would come soon enough. Within minutes we arrived at the doctor's office.

As we entered, I approached the reception desk alone.

"Hi. My name is Phillip Van Hooser. My son, Joe, has fallen and cut his chin. He needs stitches," I whispered, still trying to shield my young son from the inevitable.

"I understand," the young lady responded. "However, the doctor hasn't arrived yet. I expect him shortly. If you don't mind to wait in the examination room, I will send him right in when he gets here."

As we entered the appointed room, Joe quickly spotted some toys in the far corner. As he played, Susan and I sat and waited anxiously. Within minutes the door opened and in walked a total stranger to all of us. However, he was wearing a white smock coat and a stethoscope, so we concluded that he must be the doctor. Susan and I stood and introduced ourselves, but the doctor's attention quickly turned to Joe, who was now standing, staring directly at the stranger.

"How you doing, buddy?" the doctor asked pleasantly, to which Joe quickly and forcefully replied, "I ain't getting any stitches!"

I was shocked. Susan and I had made a deliberate point of not even mentioning stitches in Joe's presence. Yet, now he was dealing with the subject directly. The doctor never missed a beat.

"Well, let's take a look," he said as he gently removed the bandage. After a brief glance at the cut, the doctor straightened up and said, "Joe, we've got a little problem."

"What is it?" Joe asked.

"Well, if we don't sew up your chin, the next time you chew up a pork chop, it may fall through the hole onto your belly." The exaggeration seemed to capture Joe's young imagination. "Come here, Joe. We need to talk for a minute," he said as he lifted and sat our three-year old on the examination table. The doctor leaned toward Joe and Joe fixed his eyes on those of the doctor.

"Joe, I've got to sew your chin up. But, I'm not going to give you stitches. No, sir. You're special. I'm going to give you 'cat whiskers!' But first, let me show you how."

For the next couple of minutes, the doctor displayed the tools of his trade, explaining each in detail, constantly checking to make sure Joe understood.

"Joe, this is a needle and I will have to use it to give you two or three shots right in your chin. And they will hurt - but not for long. Joe, can you count to ten?"

"Yes sir," Joe replied.

"Well, by the time it takes you to count to ten, it won't hurt any more. Then we'll give you your cat whiskers and you'll be on your way home. But, if you think you're a big enough boy to handle it, I do have one job for you."

"What is it?" Joe asked curiously.

"When we get started, I will need you to lie very still and keep your hands underneath your butt. Do you think you're big enough to do that?"

Without hesitation, Joe replied, "yes sir!" Without any further encouragement, Joe rolled over on the table and waited for the procedure to begin.

For the next fifteen minutes or so, I watched in utter amazement as this doctor worked his magic. During that time, he administered three shots directly into the open wound and then followed with five stitches. Throughout the entire process, Joe never cried or resisted. He barely moved. Instead, he lay statue still, until the doctor announced the procedure complete. At that point, Joe popped up and said, "Thank you, sir." I was a very proud father.

In my office later that day, I paused to consider what I had been witness to. As I revisited the experience mentally, I came to an interesting conclusion. No matter how badly I tried to make Joe the hero of this story, I had to admit that Joe had behaved bravely in the face of the unknown because he had been led to that specific behavior so masterfully by the doctor. I was soon able to identify six specific behaviors we could all develop and practice to enhance our communication skills with others. Consider these.

1. Talk with people . . . not about them, not around them, not behind them.
2. Explain the process . . . before you begin, while people are still interested in listening.
3. Tell the truth . . .especially when it's something they may not want to hear.
4. Work for understanding . . . so that during the process confusion can be minimized.
5. Get them involved . . . as a means of giving them something to do other than complain and squirm.
6. Do your job . . . even when it occasionally is unpleasant.

As unpleasant as this situation was for all of us, I came away from it a better communicator. Now that's medicine that really works.

Thank you for requesting this article written by Phillip Van Hooser, CSP.

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