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AAMC 2014: Being the Person to Stop and Help: Daniel Goleman on Emotionally Intelligent Health Care


Years ago, as part of a social psychology experiment at Princeton Theological Seminary, a group of divinity students were told to practice a sermon.

Half were given the parable of the Good Samaritan, the man who stopped to help a stranger at the side of the road, and the other half were given a random topic from the Bible. After practice, they were told to walk to another building to give their sermon, and as they did, each of them passed a man who was bent over and moaning, clearly in need.

Did they stop to help, you may well ask, and were they more prone to help if they had been contemplating the parable of the Good Samaritan?

The answer is no, according to Daniel Goleman, author of the best-selling 1995 book, Emotional Intelligence. “Factoring most into their decision, the most powerful variable, was how much time pressure they felt.”

Such is the predicament facing the health care industry, said Goleman, a plenary speaker at the Association of American Medical Colleges’ annual conference in Chicago. “People are called upon to help others in many ways, and of course, in a medical setting, that’s what it’s all about. But as time pressures mount, and efficiency becomes more and more important, that’s the reason why it’s so important that medical education help students cultivate a lifelong capacity for being the person to stop and help.”

Emotional intelligence, like IQ, is critical to success and performance in the workplace, as Goleman defines it. But unlike IQ, it’s not an innate quality we’re born with, or the product of good genetics. It can be taught.

For this reason, it’s probably not necessary to add it to measures used to screen students for medical school. “Emotional intelligence maps well to the ACT competencies,” he said.

But these skills – a positive doctor-patient relationship, empathy, teamwork, communication, stress management, an organizational commitment and leadership – can be taught and reinforced in medical school and in professional health care settings, Goleman said.

“Technical skills will get you in the door. But it’s how you handle yourself and how you handle your relationships – and I don’t just mean with patients, I mean with colleagues – that’s going to make you a star performer.”

Major corporations look for these qualities in leaders, because the higher you go in the organization, the more these things matter:

  • Impact and influence: tailoring your presentation and language to the person with whom you’re talking, using examples and humor.
  • Developing others: using innovative teaching methods, responding flexibly to others’ needs, and recognizing their talents.
  • Empathy: taking time to listen to others’ problems, being aware of their moods and taking interest in their personal backgrounds and interests.

The challenge is that our hard-wiring – our brains – hasn’t had an upgrade in years. 

“It’s our emotions that draw our attention to what’s important for survival. It paralyzes our pre-frontal cortex and shifts out attention to the perceived threat,” Goleman said. “You may have noticed this if you’ve ever had heated argument with your spouse. At the heat of the moment, you can’t remember why you married this person.”

This is the brain’s natural response to outside threats. But in the modern world, we no longer face biological threats, Goleman said. “We face emotional threats.”

Try making rational, calm decisions when you’re being treated with disrespect or feel you’re not be listened to. Humans can’t work at the top of their skill set, or be in what Goleman calls, their “maximum state of neural harmony,” if they’re frazzled or bored.

When we find that sweet spot––what some social scientists refer to as flow – our work consumes 110 percent of our attention, we have total clarity no matter the height of the challenge before us, and it feels good.

Take, for example, the neurosurgeon, who, before undertaking a complicated procedure isn’t sure he can pull it off, but becomes so engrossed in the task that he doesn’t notice when the ceiling of the operating room caves in.

Cultivating our emotional intelligence requires cultivating a work culture of empathy, Goleman said. “We need a new model of learning and skill building. The good news is these abilities can be learned.”

Compassion builds on itself. It puts people at ease, giving them license to learn, to be themselves, and to receive and give compassion to others.

Simple behaviors, such as a touch of the hand or a soothing, attentive demeanor in a physician or nurse can make all the difference in a care setting, said Goleman, encouraging health leaders and teachers to promote those competencies.

“It doesn’t matter what we’re doing, or who we’re doing it with, we all have the opportunity to leave the other person feeling better.”

By: Kirsten Stewart

Kirsten Stewart is a senior writer for University of Utah Health Sciences