My mother was not ready to go home. Yet the hospital seemed in a hurry to get her out, as though all they cared about was that her new knee worked just fine, so the heck with the rest of her. Nurses, PTs, and the doctor’s assistant who had treated her during her recovery from knee surgery all alluded to it: Mom was going home. But I knew enough about hospitals, having spent plenty of time in them myself, who to talk to next–the case manager.
She was on the phone in her windowless office the size of a closet when I found her. When she finally got to me, I pleaded my case for another night in the hospital for my mother.
I wasn’t yelling. I wasn’t teary. But she knew I was ticked off that they were going to send her home too soon.
“Calm down!” she said in a tone that was anything but calming. It’s the same tone parents use on hysterical children and angry teenagers:
“But Mom, I didn’t do it, I swear! Don’t keep me from going to the prom!”
“Calm down” is like pushing the nuclear launch button in “War Games.” We are now at Defcon 1:
Except, I did calm down. I swallowed the words I wanted to launch at her, took a deep breath, and listened. But only because I felt sorry for her.
“Calm down” doesn’t calm anyone down. It dismisses their feelings and concerns. Rather, “I can see you’re upset and I’d like to help you” would have pulled my shoulders out of my ears instantly and–take note–calmed me down. You’d think she’d learned that on her job by now. Poor dear.
I proceeded to do my behind-the-scenes work, culminating in a 5:30 p.m. consultation with her surgeon, who said, “Well, she could go home tonight…”
“…or tomorrow,” I added, and he repeated, “or tomorrow.” I felt like Obi Wan Kenobi telling the storm troopers, “These are not the droids you’re looking for.”
(George Lucas must have wiped all Star Wars clips off YouTube, so enjoy this Lego version instead.)
In the end, I got Mom the additional night in the hospital that she needed. The next day, she was in far better shape to go home.
I had calmed myself down, thank you very much. But it would have taken a few simple words and a show of empathy to calm me down in the first place.
So, if your kids are at Defcon 2 heading toward launch, remember: acknowledge their feelings, no matter how completely different they are from yours, and say, “I can see you’re upset, and I want to help.” Then listen–really listen–reflecting back what you hear as though you’re trying to understand it on a deeper level. Throw in some empathy, and soon you’ll be truly hearing each other.
And never, ever say, “Calm down!”