Ever since I was a little kid, I remember my parents telling me I was too sensitive. When I was in 2nd grade, my Brownie troop took a trip to the movies where we saw “For The Love of Benji.” For those of you unfamiliar, Benji, the family dog, gets lost when they all take a trip to Greece and they spend the whole movie trying to find him. 

I cried and cried. Poor Benji, he’s lost in a foreign country and can’t find his way back to his family… it was more than my 7-year-old heart could take. The Brownie troop leader had to take me out to the lobby and sit with me until I could pull myself together. The other Brownies had no idea why I was so upset.

My tender heart got a little tougher as I got older but I still find myself being the only one in my family moved to tears at a rescue shelter, a Broadway show, or even a home-for-the-holidays-themed commercial. In the family reunion of my stoic, stiff upper lip northern European relatives, I’m a sensitive soul. 

I’ve learned, though, that sensitive doesn’t just mean cries at the drop of a hat. Sensitive also means I pick up on things that others often miss, and it has served me well in this line of work.  

When I’m talking with an upset family, I scan the room and notice everything. From the personal belongings in the patient room to the amount of eye contact the family members make with one another, I take it all in and use it to help me better understand and connect with them. Even with my colleagues, I’m usually the first to notice when someone is not quite themselves and I’m quick to change my communication style to suit the tone of the meeting. I’m sensitive. I notice.

Not everyone does. There have been plenty of meetings after which I left feeling emotionally drained while everyone else was just fine, unaffected, oblivious to the tension in the room.

True, it’s not always easy. It’s hard to be in tune with how other people feel and then take on those feelings, myself. But if I’m going to convey kindness, compassion, and empathy in my work, I need to. It seems only natural. If I can’t understand why they’re so upset, how can I be moved to action to make it better? So many people will listen to a complaint, say all the right things, promise to make some improvements, then simply walk away and do nothing more. When you feel what they feel and understand how important it is, you do something. 

Sensitive, to me, doesn’t mean touchy, emotional, or weepy. It means I see things that some other people don’t. I pick up on things that others may not notice. I feel things more deeply than others. I’ve found it valuable in patient experience work. Not so much at the Benji movie.

Author: Kate Kalthoff

It's simple: leave people, places, and things better than I found them. For more than 20 years, Katherine Kalthoff has been working to improve the way healthcare organizations connect with the people they serve. She began her career at Gift of Hope, the organ procurement organization for Illinois, approaching families and securing their consent to donate a loved one’s organs for transplant. Through compassionate, empathetic listening, Kate led the Family Services team to one of the highest consent rates in the country. From there, Kate went to Advocate Health Care, Illinois’s largest healthcare system, as a Physician Relations and Business Development Manager, improving physician satisfaction and strengthening the relationships of both the employed and independent physicians with the system as a whole. Just prior to joining Northwest Community Healthcare as the Patient Experience Officer, Kate was the first Manager of Patient Experience at DuPage Medical Group where she built a platform of organization-wide service excellence through her inspiring brand of education, training, and one-on-one coaching. A much sought-after speaker and trainer, Kate has a very simple approach to her work: leave people, places and things better than you found them.

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