“Steph, can you put together an in-service for the staff about how to write with heart?”
“Huh? Write with what? What do you mean?”
“Well, you know. How you write really hard stories — or even everyday ones — with some real ‘heart’ in them? You do that well.”
“I do?” My blank stare. “Um, sure?”
I’d never thought about how to do anything “with heart,” so I had to sit down and ruminate. Thinking about it, I realized I often had been given difficult assignments — talking to loved ones of people who died tragically, mostly — and had come away with solid but heartfelt stories that shared facts and feelings and honored, as best they could, the dead.
Oh, right. That. How does one do that?
If I remember right, at the staff meeting I prattled on about honing skills of observation, being slightly vulnerable with others and listening to good, journalistic interviews for ideas.
Newspaper people are notoriously cynical, a tough crowd to beat all tough crowds. I vaguely remember eye rolls, tongue clucks, a few snickers. But I saw some reluctant head nods and a couple of discreet looks of actual interest.
I was thinking of this “with heart” thing recently when preparing for a job interview. I wanted to be able to explain how I would tackle giving bed baths to hospice patients, changing their linens and talking with their families during home visits with heart.
I know I would do any kind of patient care, even “just” bed baths and linen changes, with heart. In general, I don’t find much pleasure or success in doing most anything without heart. I do laundry with heart — most times.
I don’t know if I convinced anyone of it, but I did think for a couple of days, again, about how one does anything — writes if one’s a writer, sings if one’s a singer, nurses if one’s a nurse, mothers if one’s a mother, stacks wood if one’s a wood stacker — with heart.
So, staff in-service revived:
• To do anything with heart, you have to genuinely care. Now, I vowed to never say, especially during a job interview, “I’m a people person.” A people person? No. Please do not say that. Just care about people. Or care about something. Even if you only care about your paycheck so you’re insistent on doing your job right — it’s crucial you care about something if you’re going to do it well. If you’re in a “people person” job — rhetorically, who isn’t? — remembering that all humans are worthy of love and respect and most humans could use a little TLC goes a long way to interacting with them “with heart.”
• Be observant. If there’s one skill that trumps others for importance in journalism and in nursing and, I’m guessing, in most any discipline in life, it is the skill of being acutely observant. “With heart” requires paying attention to details, noticing things about people, about the environment. Start with senses — sounds, sights, smells, etc. — and continue on with noticing subtle body language, words people use, how they interact with others. I once detected a patient was having a heart attack by the slightest change in how she sighed. My back was to her, but my ears were listening and heard. You can learn a lot about people, and thus can serve them well, by being observant.
• Be vulnerable and give a little of yourself. We have some pretty clear physical and emotional boundaries in most human interactions. As it should be. Boundaries are vital to good relationships. If I interacted like a girlfriend with every patient, for example, I would be an awful student nurse. Yet working “with heart” often means you give a little of yourself, you allow some shared vulnerability, even in arenas where you’re supposed to be the “expert.” When once interviewing a grieving family for one of those heartwrenching stories, I quietly wept with them during much of the interview. I couldn’t help it. It was completely appropriate and also showed the family that they could trust me because while I was a reporter there to ask the stupid question — “Your child just died tragically. How do you feel?” — I was a human who cared and was not afraid to allow it.
• While you give a little of yourself, be sure to get yourself out of the way. Here’s what I mean: People sometimes say to me they just couldn’t do hospice work or work with sick children or work, even, with an unmedicated laboring mother crying out, “I can’t do this anymore! Make it stop!” They’d just be too attached, too emotionally involved, they say. That’s because they’re in the way. While it’s important to give some of yourself, it’s important to remove your own personal “feelings” almost altogether. Those really are not contradictory principles. An example: A laboring mother nearing the end of her labor who says, “I hate this! Why aren’t you helping me?” really isn’t talking to me at all. Her suffering, if you see it as suffering, has nothing to do with me, and I would be both foolish and ineffective to her to be moved. A sick child is hard to see, but if you understand your role is to alleviate pain and suffering as much as possible, you just serve and set aside your own emotional “this is so hard to see” stuff to deal with later. (And do deal with it later.)
The writing part of “writing with heart” comes pretty easily if everything else is in place. That’s just putting words together, something I recognize I’m marginally good — but not spectacular — at.
The hard part of “with heart” is the necessary tension of giving and holding back, passion and prudence, compassion and stoicism.
Here’s to more “heart” today and, maybe, a new job!
Goshen News columnist Stephanie Price is a wife, mother, teacher, childbirth educator, midwife’s assistant and nursing student from Elkhart. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org, 269-641-7249 or on Facebook at the page “Whole Family Column by Steph Price.”