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Where is the leak?

One day some time ago - this was several years before Covid - I went to the doctor with a sore throat. I usually have a tendency to wait before contacting the healthcare system, but this time I decided to go. Upon arriving at the health center, I stepped into a somewhat cramped office where I met a female doctor reading through my medical record. She looked up from the computer and turned her swivel chair towards me, but our eyes barely met before she stuck a spatula in my mouth. This surprised me so much that I started to cry. "Goodness!" she said in amazement and immediately removed the spatula. "Maybe we should talk a little first..."

I have nothing bad to say about her. She proved to be both kind and responsive, and I understand that many doctors have an almost inhumane work situation with so much to do but very little time dedicated to each patient. Today I don't even remember what ailment I had so it cannot have been that serious, but the visit in itself was quite an eye opener for me.

In my previous job as a speech and language therapist, one of many tasks I had was to tutor students who were in training, and these weeks were always something I looked forward to. Among the first things they were told after being shown around and finding out where the toilets and the kitchen were, was: "If at the end of this internship you forget everything you have seen and learned, then at least take the word ’contextualize’ with you.”

Some students dutifully wrote the word down while others memorized it, but none of that would had been necessary. We returned to it every day and before every visit we had. To contextualize means to try to make the context in which we see each other as clear as possible for everyone involved. That means mentioning why we are here today, who is present and why. What is the purpose of ​​the visit and what will happen? Is this the first time we meet or is it one of several visits? Do we need to follow up on something that was talked about or agreed upon last time? Does anyone have any questions or has anything come up since last time? Contextualizing simply means setting aside a little bit of time to reach consensus about why this meeting is taking place, as well as giving everyone present the opportunity to feel prepared - and in that, hopefully also more safe and relaxed.

In my own life, I - and many with me, I would think - have often felt that not knowing what's going to happen is like an emotional energy leak. Wondering, guessing and worrying can steal energy from us that could better be used for other things. Again, I hold no grudge whatsoever against the doctor mentioned above, but I wonder if my visit there would have been different if she had used 15 seconds of those precious patient-dedicated minutes by saying, “It says here you have a sore throat. Is it okay if I begin by examining you?”

Some of our relationships with loved ones are probably already a clear context in themselves and we can usually be relaxed and spontaneous together without having to contextualize why we meet up. But even with people we know well, I still believe that we contextualize more than we may be aware of, and that this can actually be one reason why a relationship feels safe.

"The new movie about whatever-it-is has just been released. Would you like to go see it on Saturday? I thought we could also check to see if Noah is free."

"Hi! Oh, you look sad. How are you?" - "Not doing so well today..." - "I see. If there's anything you want to talk about, I'm happy to listen." - “Thank you, I’d like that.”

“I was thinking about that job you told me about, the one you were hoping you’d get. The interview was yesterday, wasn’t it?” - “Yes, it was." - "How did it go? Did it feel okay?"

"I’m so glad you could come! The fish is just about ready.” - "Yes, we actually managed to find the time, at last! But, I just want to check since I have an allergy... there's no almond in the food, right?” (Imagine the energy leak having to wonder about that in every bite!)

“Hey... there’s been a change of plan. The handyman just called and said he's coming today to check on the broken window and I have to be here to let him in. Could we meet at my place instead?"

A useful question here to ask is "What do you (or I) need to know in order for this situation to feel bit more clear, a bit more intelligible or safe? An again, I want to say that contextualization is about reaching consensus and clarity for everyone who’s affected by or who participates in something, not just ”the others”.

Sometimes life is such that we cannot get all the answers we would like or need, at least not right there and then. But if we find ourselves in a situation that feels uncertain, maybe there is still something we can ask - or share - that would make it feel a little more safe and manageable. And oftentimes, it doesn’t take a lot, and if nothing else, we get to be held (or hold someone else) in whatever it is we’re feeling.

In warmth and gentleness,


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