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Letting Off Some Steam

Updated: Aug 26, 2022

Angry female doctor holding glasses with mouth open

Throughout my life I have seen many people get into disagreements. Sometimes these have been physical altercations and other times heated verbal arguments. Yet I am surprised to have seen people arguing heatedly with one another – literally within inches of each other – but no physical violence occurred. It was almost as if they wanted to let off some steam.

Now this by no means was a scientific study. It’s just my observation. I see a role in having a more relaxed life if we let off some steam and allow others to let off some steam as well.

When I think about this concept I reflect on some of my experiences in healthcare. I have been in situations in which I have had to deliver unfortunate news to a patient’s family members. Many times it’s also an awkward situation. I may not know the family and, when it comes to bad news, you can’t just deliver that news and run. You need to stay around a bit and be available for questions or comments.

Sometimes, in response to this unfortunate news, family members have raised their voices to me, and many times unpleasant words have been directed at me. In that very moment I try not to take it personally as I have stated in an earlier blog. But I also see a role in allowing them to let off some steam. I let them state their case or at least state their concern. I usually don’t feel threatened with physical harm.

Sometimes a person’s behavior during this response doesn’t make total sense to me. But when I have allowed them to release these emotions without interruption, it has usually brought more relief and calm to the situation. Now this emotional release by itself does not suddenly make everything better, but it can play a role in a healing process.

I think about Stephen R. Covey’s book: The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. He states that we should first seek to understand before we try to be understood. When I consider this principle it makes me think about listening to others.

One natural reaction when anyone is raising their voice is to take it as a threat or a challenge. You may feel that the other person’s reaction is not called for, and you may want to jump in to give your perspective on the situation.

After experiencing a few of these situations, I too can relate to the idea of wanting to jump in and “correct” someone or “explain” my view. But again, I have found it very helpful to let that person state their concern. In the process that person has the opportunity to vent, and that person can also feel as if someone has listened.

I remember one situation many years ago when I had to deliver unfortunate news about a patient to several family members. I was met with what felt like anger, frustration, and utter shock. At the time I was with a nurse, and I didn’t feel personally threatened, but the emotional response to the news felt like an attack. I allowed the family members to express themselves without interruption, and I noticed the pain they were experiencing.

I think the situation would have gone differently if I had jumped in and interrupted in order to state my case. There are so many different situations in which people may become emotional, raise their voices, or react in such a way that we take it as a threat or challenge.

In the moment of a particular situation you likely are the expert on how you should deal with the experience. There is not a one-size-fits-all answer to every situation.

When I think of patients in a hospital setting, I realize that I am a medical professional, and these patients and families are, in some cases, in unfamiliar surroundings. Depending on what a patient and family are going through, they can feel vulnerable and perhaps more sensitive.

So this is what I have found helpful.When I feel the urge to jump in when someone feels hurt or angry, I take a second and try to understand where that person is coming from.

When have you found it helpful to let someone else let off some steam?

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