For the better part of 20 years, I have had the humble privilege of working with medical students. Whenever I spend time with them, I learn at least as much as I teach, and I come away inspired.
This day was no different, and I will never forget it. We gathered in the stark conference center for a day-long communication skills workshop—physicians, nurse practitioners, residents, and medical students. The facilitators came from the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science; if you ever have a chance to learn from them, I highly recommend it. I could almost palpate the group’s shy, tense, anticipatory excitement—this was a high-potential learning situation. After time-travel role playing, imaginary ball-throwing, and Zip-Zap-Zopping with abandon, we relaxed into the liberated format that is improv-based learning. That’s when I experienced an unqualified quantum leap in consciousness. It came in the form of a rant.
Partner A: Rant rant rant, HARD, about something that really makes you angry—that truly enrages you, nothing small. Not allowed to make it up, must be honest, let loose. Yell, stomp, swear, etc., for two minutes straight.
Partner B: Listen, be present, no talking. Introduce A to the group afterward. The catch: At no time during the introduction should the group be able to tell what A ranted about.
I paired up with Erik, a fourth year medical student. I did the rage gods proud as I cursed and flailed for two full minutes about the victim mentality. Your parents ignored you? Your boss is a jerk? You’re stuck in a dead-end job in a crime-ridden city, hovelled in a grungy apartment with no view, and it’s all someone else’s fault? Suck it up! And on it went. Erik stuck with me through it all, looking me straight in the eye and never flinching. He introduced me thusly:
“This is my friend Cathy. Cathy believes strongly, with her whole being, that each and every person has the strength and capacity to overcome any adversity, and lift himself out of whatever situation holds him back. She believes in people, and wants to see them succeed, no matter what the circumstances.” Nailed it. What a powerful thing, to have someone distill and give voice to my core value, and after I had just raved like a lunatic, no less. I had never met Erik before that exercise, and I felt an instant bond. He saw me, and showed me a part of myself that I had not seen before. I am proud to know him.
Often when we witness ranting, we pile on and trigger an avalanche of mutual self-righteousness, or we unwittingly invalidate the person by arguing a counterpoint. The practice of listening beyond the rant, hearing the core value, and then reflecting it, serves a higher calling. It connects, validates, and settles. It offers the ranter a mirror, an opportunity for self-reflection and awareness. If we practice consistently, on each other and ourselves alike, we can hardly help but emerge transformed.