What to Do When Emotions Run High in the Exam Room


Step one: Don't ignore it.

Fam Pract Manag. 2018 Mar-Apr;25(2):48.

Author disclosure: no relevant financial affiliations disclosed.

With all the pressures on doctors today to do more in less time, it is tempting to look for shortcuts throughout your workday. One ill-advised shortcut is to ignore patients' emotions during their visits.

Even conscientious physicians who are attentive and listen well to what their patients are saying can easily become focused on the cognitive aspects of the visit and miss the emotional layer just beneath the surface. Left unaddressed, negative emotions — such as Mr. Jones' tinges of anger or Mrs. Smith's constant worrying — can hinder the healing process and complicate the doctor-patient relationship.

Here are five pointers for identifying and addressing difficult emotions during patient visits:

1. Note nonverbal cues. Communication theorists tell us that most communication is nonverbal. We communicate through our posture, our facial expressions, our moods, our gestures, our eye contact, and so on. Even with verbal communication, our tone, inflection, and pace can reveal more than our words. When a patient says everything is okay but has a blank stare or an angry tone, we should not ignore these cues.

2. Bring up what is happening right in front of you. When we see a patient display a negative emotion during a visit, whether through nonverbal cues or otherwise, we need to address it or else the visit can begin to deteriorate. We might say to the patient who gives off angry cues, “Joe, it seems like something is really bothering you today. Would you like to talk about it?” When asking a “feeling” question like this, be prepared for a more intense expression of feelings, at least initially. Things may get worse before they get better. However, by getting the emotions out in the open, we can begin to address them.

3. Make gentle probes. When emotions are difficult, we should not approach the person like “a bull in a china shop.” Instead, for better results, speak softly and gently and give the patient some space. For example, “Sally, I sense


Dr. McBride is director of behavioral medicine for the Floyd Medical Center Family Medicine Residency Program in Rome, Ga.

Author disclosure: no relevant financial affiliations disclosed.


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