How To Deal With Patients’ Skepticism as a Holistic Practitioner

Nurture your bedside manner with curiosity and unconditional empathy

“You never really understand a person until you consider things from their point of view.”

Harper Lee

Not everyone wants what you have to offer.

A woman came to see me with a hundred symptoms. I’m not kidding, She said she was desperate, showed little hope, and was looking for something to help her. I’ll call her Mary to protect her privacy.

Now I have great faith in holistic medicine and what it can do when applied correctly in the right circumstances. I’ve seen multi-layered syndromes unravel, symptom waves flatten out, and healthy, happy lives emerge. Every time it was a team effort!

As an acupuncturist and functional nutrition practitioner, I was often the last resort for people with syndromes and chronic issues. Much like a ‘Hail Mary’ pass in football, this Mary had tried everything else and thought she’d give me a shot.

On her first visit, while I did my usual intake process for complex cases, I saw a pattern form in my mind as she spoke, and I could see a couple of paths ahead for treatment options.

Then I blew it!

I was looking at the situation from a point of view that embraced holistic treatment, teamwork, and a ‘get to the cause of the problem’ mindset. I was all-in and ready to roll out a complex plan. But Mary was not on board; she wasn’t ready to comprehend that. Her point of view came from a lifetime of drug therapy, surgery, and quick fixes.

She said with skepticism in her eyes, ‘that’s going to help me?’, and objections like, ‘I can’t change my diet, I’ve already tried that’’ (and many more). But with great confidence, I assured her this was what she needed and this is what we were going to do.

I was hellbent on my way. I saw the root issues at the center of her condition and wanted to address those right away as the primary focus. Didn’t she see that? Why wouldn’t she want to jump in? Isn’t she sick of feeling this way?

My point of view was taking over the conversation.

What I didn’t see was a person who was scared, trying a new type of medicine, who had already been disappointed by so many other failed attempts and possibly thought I was nuts. She didn’t know me, why would she make a big effort or take a big risk with me?

I got self-righteous instead of compromising.

She wanted the feel-good stuff. Realizing now she wanted a little hand-holding, a little more time to learn to trust the process; I could have given her baby steps, started on a course more familiar to what she was used to, and slowly opened her up to new possibilities and disciplines.

I think I got scared she’d leave, or that a baby step wouldn’t be enough to make a difference. But because I fire-hosed her with facts and dismissed her point of view, she left anyhow.

Of course, she created a block against anything I’d have to say. I didn’t show that I understood her, or show I was willing to help her feel safe in this strange new world.

See things from their point of view.

My Grandfather — an expert diagnostician and internal medicine specialist, told me the most valuable tool a practitioner has is their bedside manner. That became a powerful guiding principle for me; prioritizing empathy, understanding, and respect.

I believe a large part of a good bedside manner is the committed practice of stepping into the other person’s shoes (and walking in them a bit). Curious to see their world, standing atop their mountain of experience, I’m prompted to ask questions to help me grow that understanding.

When I mentor practitioners and coaches now, I ask them these 3 questions. After which I suggest they adjust their agenda and consider a compromise using the answers:

  1. What is important to the patient?
  2. What do they really want?
  3. How much discipline and willingness do they have?

Empathy is an unconditional gift.

The brain of a psychopath doesn’t experience empathy the way most folks do. It’s very hard for them to see other people’s points of view or care about them.

Those of us who have an abundance of empathy have other challenges. The sensitivity that’s married to empathy can really get under your skin (pun intended). Until I learned how to use that sensitivity as a tool instead of a trigger, I’d get symptoms similar to what the patients were experiencing!

Using clear empathy to get a good, solid read on a person can be helpful when assessing a patient and deciding what direction to go with them for care. It also helps compliance, teamwork, and mutual understanding if they hear what they need to hear in the way they need to hear it.

I will meet you at the place you permit me to.

Would Mary and I ever have found a good treatment flow together? Maybe not. We can’t please or help everyone. We all have our own path to walk. I’ve had enough tough conversations about limitations, expectations, and teamwork to know there’s a time to close the gate and let it go.

There’s a place for drawing lines in the sand. I know a handful of uncompromising practitioners who promote the, ‘Like it or leave it, no time for people who aren’t in 100%’ type of hard edge. I respect that. In certain circumstances, it’s a great strategy.

But what might have happened had I gotten out of my head and into Mary’s shoes? What if I hadn’t made assumptions about what she understood and her willingness to comply? If I’d not insisted there was only one way with her?

I won’t ever know, but I do know that empathy, understanding and respecting points of view is paramount in all relationships. 

I know that bedside manner, being the most important tool of a practitioner, is something we can all afford to nurture. I’ve seen healing transformation happen by taking the long road that begins with meeting people where they are.

When I’m impatient or really disagree with where a person stands, I bring to mind this quote by Mahatma Gandhi, which I kept in a frame on my desk:

“The golden rule of conduct is mutual toleration, seeing that we will never all think alike and we shall always see Truth in fragment and from different points of vision.”

Mahatma Gandhi

Look for the win-win.

I get that I don’t have a corner on truth or what’s right. I can only recognize what seems true for me from my experience. 

The golden path I attempt to walk challenges me to hold a larger space. A space where I can recognize and consider other truths. 

It is important my relationships begin from a place of curiosity rather than bias.

In the many years that followed after Mary’s visit, I remembered this lesson every time I found myself attempting to convince someone of my truth before asking them how they felt about it.

I hope my Grandfather is watching over and is happy I listened to him.