Intended for healthcare professionals

Student Education

Emotions revealed

BMJ 2004; 328 doi: (Published 01 May 2004) Cite this as: BMJ 2004;328:0405184
  1. Paul Ekman, professor of psychology at the University of California1
  1. 1San Francisco, spoke to Gavin Yamey, assistant editor, BMJ Learning

In the second of two articles, Paul Ekman discusses how recognising your own emotions can help you communicate better

In the first article I discussed two skills that can help you in your professional relationships.1 The first is becoming aware of the emotions of others by reading the brief or subtle expressions on their face. The second is knowing what to do with this information--how should you react if you see subtle signs of anger or sadness in your patient or colleague? Box 1 gives an example of how to use these skills when you are being appraised.

Box 1: Emotional awareness during your appraisal

Being criticised during an appraisal can be hard to deal with. We need to be aware of our own emotions and to try to read accurately how the person who is giving us the feedback feels. Perhaps, for example, you see subtle signs of anger on your supervisor's face during the appraisal: their lips are slightly narrowed and there is a slight tensing of their lower eyelids. It is useful to know they are angry, even though you cannot know the cause. Maybe they are angry because someone passed a message on to them about your performance that they must now pass on to you, and they are angry at being the messenger.

If you see anger, the most you can say to your supervisor is: “Is there anything more I need to know about how you feel about what's happened?” In most situations, unless the person criticising you is a close colleague rather than a supervisor, you will not be able to say more than that. If you see sadness on your supervisor's face, perhaps they are disappointed in how you performed and you might say: “I'm really concerned--have I disappointed you?” or “I know I've disappointed you and I …

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