The Power of Story

0 comments Posted on November 3, 2014

by Sigmund Brouwer

Life lessons come in all shapes and sizes. Ponytail and braces—that was our ten-year-old daughter Olivia, waiting for Doc Ivan to examine her teeth, a few months into the course of orthodontic treatment.

Olivia wasn’t alone at this appointment. It was a family event. Olivia and I were there with my wife Cindy and seven-year-old Savannah also in the small room, complete with charts and computer screen with images of Olivia’s jaw and teeth.

From what I understand, most orthodontists don’t allow the entire family to be part of the consult.

Most orthodontists choose a different layout to maximize space efficiency: cubicles rather than rooms, parents waiting in a reception room while the doctor quickly moves from cubicle to cubicle.

After an assessment, the orthodontist gives instructions to the child, and also to a technician, who does the necessary mechanical adjustments while the orthodontist moves to the next patient. Moving quickly, an orthodontist can dispense this specialized knowledge to over 130 patients per day.

Knowing how precious time is in a situation like this, and knowing that there were other families in other rooms waiting for Doc Ivan, my stress level rose when he walked into the room and asked Olivia if she had done anything fun on the weekend.

Olivia can talk. And talk. And talk. She loves telling stories. We’d recently gone on a family rafting trip and she wanted to tell Doc Ivan all about it.

On cue, at every pause in Olivia’s story, Doc Ivan clucked with concern, or oohed in admiration, depending on what was appropriate.

My internal response was much different than his external reaction. I wanted the story to be over. Didn’t Olivia realize how many other people needed Doc Ivan’s time? I waited and waited and waited, my stress level climbing, until her story ended. The only reason I didn’t interrupt was because this was Doc Ivan’s office; it wasn’t my business to tell Doc Ivan how to do his job.

9780307446497When her story finally did end, Doc Ivan gave her a high five, and then checked her braces. Thirty seconds later, he pronounced it was time to put in a more high-tensile wire. He gave Olivia some instructions and asked if she, or my wife or I had any questions about what Olivia needed to do on a nightly basis. Satisfied that we all knew what was needed, he left with a cheerful goodbye—but not without first giving Savannah too, his full attention for about a minute so that she wouldn’t feel left out.  His technician spent another five minutes explaining the mechanical aspects of complying with his instructions.

Later, in a social situation, I had a chance to ask Doc Ivan about the way he treated his patients. His assessment and instructions took up a very small portion of his time with our family, and to me, it didn’t seem efficient—about eighty percent of the consult had been spent on talking to Olivia and Savannah and listening to their stories.

Remember I said this was unusual?

In contrast to the orthodontist who efficiently isolates patients in cubicles, Doc Ivan at best can see only 100 patients per day, 40 less than his colleagues. From a cold revenue point of view, that’s a substantial difference.

Which brings me to the reason for telling this story.

It’s very simple.

When I asked Doc Ivan why he runs his practice so differently from other orthodontists, why he would spend five minutes listening to Olivia’s story like it was the most important thing he could do at the time, this was his answer.

“Sigmund, there’s a little girl attached to those teeth.”

Ivan explained that by listening to the stories of the children he treats, he connects to them. It’s a connection that makes his work satisfying, he said, because years after treatment, kids who have become adults will cross the street to chat. And, he said, it’s such a strong connection that the children he treats tend to try to live up to his request to follow his instructions between visits.

Sigmund, there’s a little girl attached to those teeth.

I realized in that moment that in all my years of writing novels and stories for children, that I had been blind to the foundational truth about story that served Ivan so well.

We are our stories. In sharing our stories, we share ourselves.

Sigmund, there’s a little girl attached to those teeth.

In that moment, too, I felt a great shame. That morning in his office, as Olivia had happily told Doc Ivan about rafting on the river, I had come within a whisker of telling the little girl that I love so much to stop sharing her life, that her story wasn’t important, and, by extension, implying that she wasn’t important.

It was a tremendous lesson that I hope to never forget. Yes, there are times when I’m in a hurry and I want to tell myself that my life is more important than the three minutes it will take to listen to someone else share a story about something that happened in his or her life. But then, I remind myself of how little effort it takes to extend kindness by listening. And by doing so, I always walk away with gratitude to Doc Ivan for helping me understand the power of story.

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