1. Be Approachable
I don’t wear a doctor’s white coat in my office because I want patients to feel like they are coming to talk to a friend and can tell me anything. You can convey warmth and approachability in any line of work — keeping personal photos and mementos at your desk is a great way to humanize yourself so colleagues feel comfortable sharing sensitive information with you.
2. Establish a Rapport
If you need to glean sensitive information from someone, start by asking easy, open-ended questions to make her feel comfortable. I always begin an appointment by asking my patients, “How are you?” and “What’s new?” This is where typically I would hear, “Oh, I quit my job” or “I have a new boyfriend.” You get really helpful intel when you just let people talk. Once you have that bond, it’s so much easier to broach tough topics and have a productive conversation.
3. Pick a Good Moment
Don’t sit on bad news, and never email or outsource the delivery to someone else. If I’m calling a patient, I say, “Do you have a second? Is this a good time?” I want her to be able to ask questions or cry without feeling awkward or embarrassed because she’s at her desk. When meeting in person, find a private, nonintrusive place and strategic moment. If I’m going to ask a patient how many sex partners she has had or whether she’s been using protection, I will literally wait until I’m sitting on the stool between her legs. Whatever your workplace, a more intimate setting yields a more honest answer.
4. Say It Clearly
When people are upset, they don’t really hear what you’re saying and they get confused. Be very straightforward about what’s happening. I might say, “I have the results back. Your BRCA genetic test is positive” or “You definitely have been exposed to genital herpes.” I condense the big picture into a one-liner, then hand over a piece of paper on which I’ve written the specific next steps.
5. Look for a Silver Lining
Emphasize any positives associated with the bad news — maybe you highlight that it’s great you caught the issue early or you frame the information as a way to motivate change. Focusing on positives keeps your recipient future-oriented. Just keep the hope grounded in reality. Say, “I know this may be hard. But we’re going to help you get through it.”