Partnering is a One-Lane Bridge

Written By Lauren Shorser

Editor’s note: On May 9, ELLICSR hosted For Me With Me: A Forum for People Affected by Cancer. We invited people who’ve been impacted by cancer to come share their experience, learn from others what helped them, and work with us to begin to revolutionize the cancer experience. Late in the morning, we broke into smaller groups to share experiences and build a toolkit to help others. ELLICSR bloggers sat in on each session. Here’s what they experienced.

Several years ago I went on a road trip in New Zealand. It was an amazing trip in a lot of ways, but one of the things I remember most is the actual driving. There were stunning coastal vistas so distracting that I almost drove off the road, and twisting mountain roads that were terrifying at first for someone who, like me, had only ever driven on the gently curving roads and highways around Toronto.

Image of one lane road/bridge ahead
Photo: Nathan Nelson ia flickr Creative Commons

And there were the one-lane bridges. Outside of the big cities, the highways were only two lanes, one in each direction. But when you came to a bridge, the road narrowed to a single lane. Signs warned of an upcoming bridge and indicated which direction had right of way. As the road started to narrow, I would slow down and peer cautiously ahead, trying to see if anyone was on or approaching the bridge. If the other direction had the right of way, or if the bridge was already occupied, I would stop and wait for the oncoming car to cross before continuing on myself.

A few weeks ago I was privileged to sit in on one of the breakout sessions that was a part of our For Me With Me event. The people in the group I sat in on were talking about what it means to be a partner in your health care while building a bridge to symbolize the connection that people need to build with their health care team.

People talked about feeling rushed during appointments, and not having time to ask questions or voice their concerns. They talked about learning more from nurses and radiation technicians than from their doctors, as these people spent more time explaining things. They also talked about the reluctance of some health care providers to treat patients as equal partners. Complaints of autocratic doctors who expected patients to unquestioningly follow their orders were met with heartfelt agreement.

A large part of the discussion revolved around the fact that the bridge you build between yourself and your team has to be a two-way bridge. You need to listen to your health care providers, but they also need to listen to you. They need to not just tell you what is going on, but explain it in language that you can understand. You need to be frank with them about what you are experiencing, and ask questions if there is something that you want to know or do not understand.

As I reviewed my notes after the session, it occurred to me that a two-way bridge was not really enough to ensure a partnership. Two-way bridges have at least one lane of traffic travelling in each direction. Although communication can flow both ways, it will not necessarily make an impression on the person coming from the other direction.

What is really needed for a good partnership is a bridge like the ones I encountered in New Zealand. A one-lane bridge means that traffic can only flow in one direction at a time. Similarly, it’s a good idea for communication to flow only one way at a time instead of two people trying to talk over each other. A one-lane bridge forces you to be careful as you approach, to avoid an accident. Being careful in your communication by thinking over your words before saying them can avoid misunderstandings and miscommunications. A one-lane bridge forces you to take turns yielding to each other. In some situations, it may make sense to let your health care team have the first say and then respond to them. In others, they should yield the right-of-way to you and let you lead.

Communication and partnership definitely need to flow in two directions. But it may help to think of your communication with your team as a one-lane bridge.