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  • Writer's pictureNichole Kingham Au.D.

Tell Your Story

I did something hard last week. Like really hard. Not like having a baby hard. Or, firing someone hard. But equally terrifying - at least for me. Because I grew up in a family where my Dad was really well known in his circle of influence and everywhere we went, someone knew him, knew of him or wanted to know him. And that meant I, by association, was also known and people wanted to know all about me and cared about stupid stuff like what clothes I’d be wearing to church, what makeup I was allowed to wear or how old I needed to be before I started dating, along with a plethora of other nonsensical pieces of unimportant information that absolutely didn’t matter. It baffled me that anyone cared. I was just a kid and I didn’t understand why people wanted to know us and about us. My Dad was just my Dad...big, goofy, handsome, smiling, singing - but semi-famous - Dad.

Fear of Judgement

Then, the judgement came: “Did you see how short her skirt was?” “Did you notice how dark her lipstick was?” “How do they let her date when she is so young?” Yes, I was 14, but was it REALLY dating at 14? I mean, we talked on the phone and I saw him at church. But the judgement was real. The pressure to be good, to be virtuous, to be ladylike and kind and generous….and...and...and...was tangible. It was overwhelming and it never stopped! So, I learned to tuck in really tight with my personal stuff, hiding from the outside world and refusing to be vulnerable. I created barriers - a hard outer exterior -

between me and the people who would judge because then I didn’t have to feel that fear of rejection, the unkindness of people who didn’t know me or the fear of not being good enough. I rarely spoke of my feelings to others. I rarely lived my life in the public eye for fear of judgement. Fear is crippling, you know. Fear is also the thief of joy. So, last week, when I had the opportunity to get personal in a public forum, I stood up to my fear and agreed to be vulnerable. In front of 100 people. I literally thought I was going to faint. I could feel my heart racing! My breath wouldn’t come naturally. My cheeks were flushed and I couldn’t think clearly. But the story was an important one. It had to be told.

Storytelling Is Not Logic-based

Storytelling - the uniquely human ability to weave words into a work of art, of entertainment or to bring about a journey of transformation is an important part of any culture. We teach and redirect through story. We enlighten with our stories. And, we create connections with our stories as well. What I’ve learned is that, as audiologists and hearing healthcare providers, we don’t really understand the importance of storytelling as we direct the patient journey. I believe this is because we’ve been taught to think of the patient journey as logical and analytical. We move patients from point A - hearing loss, to point B - better hearing. We use analytical data, charts and graphs to help a person with hearing loss logically understand the loss and the gain to be had by wearing hearing aids. But by using a purely analytical approach, we fail to connect with the emotions of hearing loss and often fail to convince patients of the need for hearing services. It’s no wonder that less than 50% of patients complete the buying process when they’re in our offices. Because the buying process isn’t purely logical. In fact, it’s an emotionally-based decision.

Feeling Machines That Think

Richard Restak, author of several books about the brain and how it works says, “We are not thinking machines, we are feeling machines that think.” And, the majority of our decisions are made in the emotional center of the brain - in the limbic system. The limbic system is the primary part of the brain that drives our emotions and our feelings. It then connects spoken language (which resides in the analytical neocortex) to those feelings and emotions. The limbic system is what allows us to remember, learn and change. If we want to motivate our patients to change, we have to learn to speak the limbic system’s language - the language of emotion. But audiologists and hearing healthcare providers in general tend to be more analytical, logic-based thinkers. We think from the top down - from point A to point B...if this, then that. Our scientific analysis is necessary and makes us great clinicians. To be the absolute best we can be, though, we need to rethink how we counsel our patients. Counseling logically may actually hinder our ability to help patients accept the data that is clearly true - they have hearing loss - and the clearly logical solution - they need hearing aids. It may not seem logical but emotions drive our reason. To be a truly excellent clinician, it’s time to move past the logic-based counseling techniques of the past and begin to meet the needs of our patients by asking them to tell their story.

Tell Me Your Story

So how do you get patients to tell their story? You tell them yours. That’s right, it’s that simple. Tell them your story. By telling your story, you tell your patients that you’re willing to be vulnerable and vulnerability builds trust. When we allow people to see who we are as people, when we step past the boundaries of “I’m the doctor and you’re the patient” and move into the chasm of “I’m doing something scary,” it gives our patients the permission to “feel all the feels.” In case you’ve forgotten, hearing loss is scary! Hearing loss causes depression and loneliness not just because hearing loss separates us from people but because it is a LOSS. And patients need to be given permission to feel that and express it. You have the key to unlock that conversation. Your vulnerability will unlock their story. It’s the simple Law of Reciprocity: If you are willing to open up and share something, it gives your patient the permission to do the same.

So, What If I Don’t Have a Story

I got lucky. My story is easy. My mother has hearing loss, as did her mother and her mother before her. I was telling my story before I even realized I had a story. But what if you don’t? What if you’ve never really thought about why you became a hearing and balance expert? If you don’t think you have a story, it’s there under the surface. You just need time to cultivate it. Every good story needs to be crafted. It has a beginning, a middle and an end. But crafting a good story that has the impact you would like it to have every time it’s delivered takes time and effort. There are all sorts of books on storytelling and in the coming weeks, my hope is to help you with the process as well. So start now by thinking of stories you might be telling already and how you can rework them to be more powerful or poignant. For instance, do you have a story of a favorite patient and how they came to hear better? Have you watched a child have their cochlear implant activated? How did that make you feel? Do you have that difficult patient who came back and thanked you for your hard work? Those are stories that will help someone else decide to work toward better hearing. The hard part is putting them on paper and then knowing how and when to pull them out of the memory banks when you’re connecting with patients.

You should have 3 basic stories in your arsenal: the Who I Am story, the Why I Do What I Do story and the Who I’ve Helped story. If you start there, you’ll find you have other stories you can tell that will build connections with your patients and with practice, storytelling can become the best part of your appointments. I know it did for me. My favorite stories are those that include patients I’ve helped. I use the technique called Feel-Felt-Found. It’s a simple way to tell a quick story in 3 sentences or less. It goes something like this, “Mr. Jones, I can see with your questionnaire that you might feel like you’re missing out on conversations. I have a patient with similar hearing loss that felt the same way. What he found was that hearing aids truly helped him hear his wife and grandkids better and that has made all the difference.” Having several Feel-Felt-Found stories can help break down barriers and says, “you have nothing to fear and you can trust me.” What a great place to start.

Storytelling Saves Lives

As hearing healthcare providers we absolutely know what we do changes lives. But did you know that a simple story, something you might think is irrelevant or even silly, can have a drastic impact on the life of another person? Don’t discount your experiences. Stories that may seem trivial may have a huge impact on someone else. A simple story can remove fear and gives patients courage to step into the unknown. This was absolutely the case for me in my own life just recently. I have a friend and fellow audiologist, Dr. Whitney Swander, who had the audacity to post on Facebook of all places that she was having stomach issues last fall. After a doctor’s visit, Dr. Swander was vulnerable enough to talk about her fear of what the issues might be stemming from and that there was an indication that it may be Crohn’s disease. That led to a colonoscopy. Colonoscopies aren’t fun. No one wants one. We have a fear of the prep and a fear of whether or not there will be pain. It’s a fear of the unknown. So, when Dr. Swander talked about it - and even better, posted a picture of her colon on Facebook, it broke down a barrier for me and I scheduled a colonoscopy I had been putting off for several months.

You see, I’ve had stomach issues my entire life. I’ve been told it’s anxiety, it’s food sensitivities, it’s Irritable Bowel Syndrome - never with any solutions. So, when a bout of the “stomach flu” didn’t go away quickly, I went to my PCP and she suggested a colonoscopy. For a stomach ache?? I thought, “that’s a bit drastic, isn’t it?” And because of my fear of the unknown, I put it off. Then, I saw Dr. Swander’s story. It gave me courage to step past my fear. Within a month, I was having cancer surgery for a Stage 3 Adenocarcinoma. I had 14 inches of my colon removed and a hysterectomy. If Dr. Swander hadn’t told her story, who knows how long it would have been before I would have found the cancer.

She very likely saved my life. I will be forever grateful to her for her willingness to be vulnerable. I’m on a good path. I’m going to make a full recovery and live a full life. My job now is to follow the Law of Reciprocity - because she was willing to be vulnerable, I will be willing to be as well. I will stand on a stage in front of 100 people and tell the story and write a blog post about something very personal in the hopes that you, in turn, will see the value of your story, be willing to step outside your comfort zone and be vulnerable with your patients. You will change lives. Your story is worthy of being told. Now, let’s get telling!

To hear more of the story with Dr. Whitney Swander, watch here:

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