Our lives are determined by conversations, what people say to one another, and the choices people make when deciding on how to respond to another person’s words. Dr. Brian Wong of the Bedside Project, brought that home during a talk to to members of the Columbus Rotary Club. (His appearance was sponsored by St. Francis Hospital.) It’s the sort of thing that he tells physicians when he is coaching them on how to improve their bedside manner by proper communications.
He used film clips of the movie Gettysburg to make his point. Colonel Joshua Chamberlain was faced with dealing with 120 members of the 20th Maine regiment who had mutinied and refused to fight at Gettysburg. Wong played clips from the movie showing how Chamberlain responded to remarks made by angered mutineers. He would stop the film and ask the Rotarians to turn to one another and say what they would have said if they had been the colonel, then he played Colonel Chamberlains response, which was usually the opposite to the first blush immediate reactions by the Rotarians.
Turns out that Chamberlain won the men over by the way he handled the situation. The picked up their muskets and join the famous bayonet charge that defeated Southern troops at Little Round Top. He did it, according to Dr. Wong by expertly using the space between stimulus and response. In other words when someone says something to you, that is the stimulus, and the space between that and your response can make a lot of difference.
Instead of reacting immediately to disrespectful and insubordinate remarks by a spokesman for the mutineers, he would pause before he spoke, and then say the opposite of what an immediate, also angry would have been. It disarmed the mutineers, and he gave a speech – maybe the Hollywood version in the movie had some truth to it, though no one seems to know how much – that inspired all but a few of the men to pick up their muskets again and join in the fight.
The lesson of Dr. Wong, “Use that space before you respond, and, quite often, it will be the opposite of what you would have said if you had not used it, and the outcome can be much better.” This is the sort of thing he teaches doctors in inspiring them to improve their relationships with their patients. I guess it boils down to “look before you leap” and “think before you speak,” if we put it in terms of well-worn proverbs.