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The Vocal Gray

Gabriel Sidwell
Gabriel Sidwell
8 min read
The Vocal Gray
Custom Made on Canva by the Author

I never thought of myself as a charismatic person. At least, not by a large margin. I always valued neutrality in my interactions with others, and often would take a large amount of time trying to gauge every new person I met before committing to any actions or communication. It was the safer method of talking with others, as I absolutely hated confrontation and making others uncomfortable by accident.

Assess, Measure, Respond. This was the creed I lived by since middle school, and it helped me get by, mostly. It’s because of this that my friends always describe me as the “Chillest person they have ever known”. I like the title. It felt like I could live in a constant vibe.

For the longest time, however, I’ve severely undervalued just how ‘useful’ the creed was in my professional life. Some of you reading this may already know that I work in the healthcare field; those of you who don’t… let me introduce myself! My name is Gabriel, and I work in a pain management clinic. Have been since I was nineteen, when I started shadowing a physician assistant who was ex-military. It’s been at least eight years now since I started working in that clinic.

I have gotten along with a majority of my patients, with a few exceptions. I was always told that I seem to be the one who actually “listens” to their complaints, their worries, and their updates. Most of the patients we see, we see monthly. So it was quite easy to develop relationships and get to know everyone on a first-name basis. Lately, the population of people I would care for has expanded to those who are dealing with cancer pain after a newest doctor joined the practice (who is just the nicest woman you would ever meet. I have a lot of respect for her).

We’ve had an incident at work recently that involved a patient who was being seen regularly by one of our other providers. She was older, in her seventies, and had some issues with trusting others. Unbeknownst to me, it has gotten to where this patient actually cursed out the physician assistants underneath this provider (we’ll call him Dr. G., and the doctor who I work with can be called Dr. M.).

Dr. G wasn’t at all too pleased with this. After a long discussion with the patient, he simply asked her to name one person in the entire practice who she could get along with, because if there was no one, we could not continue to treat her.

The patient named me as that person, after a long pause.

This was how Dr. M and I adopted a new patient. I was honestly a little surprised, as I never thought that I did anything extraordinary to warrant this level of respect from anyone. I just do my job and do my best to be cordial. But when Dr. M and I later discussed what had happened, we came to the same conclusion that it had something to do with how both of us communicated with our patients.

Essentially, the utilization of the creed did more than ensure no confrontation came from our interactions with others. It provided actual ground for progressive communication. Progression that actually garnered respect and admiration from others, while simultaneously ensuring compliance.

I remember reading an article a few years back about the “Gray Man Theory”. The theory states that it is possible to hide in plain sight by how you act, what you wear, and how you overall look. The ability to become invisible within the periphery of onlookers is perpetuated to be an essential survival skill that lowers your risk of danger by becoming totally inconspicuous and unremarkable.

Now, the Gray Man Theory is mostly thought of as a method of survival that can be useful in the event of societal collapse, but the idea has many real-world applications that a lot of us perform unconsciously. After my talk with Dr. M., I realized that the creed “Assess. Measure. Respond” inadvertently contained a few principles of the Gray Man Theory. After thinking about the creed long and hard, I have boiled down a few things I have unconsciously been doing when interacting with patients that ensure that I am always on their good side while not giving ground and jeopardizing work policies.

Ever the Professional

It should go without saying that if you look the part of a professional, then others will not have any trouble viewing you as one. This usually involves dressing appropriately, keeping yourself trimmed up, and ensuring you’re keeping up on hygiene. Being ever professional helps to build up rapport overtime with the people you interact with regularly; and helps make great first impressions with new people you meet. This also benefits your own mental health, as putting on the appearance of a professional is a great way to build your own self-esteem and confidence overtime (which will pay dividends down the line).

Facial Cues to Lead Emotions

The slight smile. A raised brow. Double brow raises. A twitch of a cheek followed by a frown. One should never underestimate the power that facial cues have in conversation, argument, and rhetoric alike. Even while most of us are required to wear masks in public spaces, you can still achieve a lot with just the look in your eyes and how your temples move. Exaggerated expressions during the right moments of conversation lead others to believe that you are listening and attentive (even when you’re not always following the conversation). Facial cues are also a fantastic way to help develop the perception of sympathy in whomever you are speaking with.

Always with a Plan

This will vary more between people and personalities, but most relax around someone who appears to be in complete control of their environment. On most occasions, this involved having a plan of action at all times. Now, this doesn’t mean you always have to come up with a comprehensive solution to multiple situations on the fly. It is having a pathway of planning and conveying to someone else that you have a functional pathway to progression that helps to instill trust, dissuade suspicion, and reach that charismatic neutrality. I do not want to sound narcissistic by saying this, but… there are some instances where others just feel more comfortable being told what to do (assuming you are not an ass about it). If you have taken time to build up your self-esteem and confidence by being ever professional, the effect of this improves substantially.

Direct by Redirecting

If you are ever dealing with somebody who is upset, angry, etcetera, for reasons beyond your control or that you are not responsible for, it is important to learn how to direct focus and emotion by redirecting their ire to something that is more tangibly responsible for their distress. To do this successfully requires some points listed above. Basically, you adopt a truly neutral stance on the matter, sympathize with the person who is upset, and then move the spotlight onto another target of their ire.

This may be a little difficult to conceptualize, so I will offer an example of what this may look like. I had another patient recently whose daughter called me, upset that the new medication their provider wanted to trial them on was ridiculously expensive, even with health insurance (and it was, in all fairness, truly expensive). There was no way our office could have known that this drug would be expensive for the patient, though, as we have others whose plans within the same network as the patient cover the cost of the medication.

The daughter had her ire on me and my practice. She was upset that no one had let them know how expensive the medication was, despite how much hype their provider had for the medication. This was how I redirected that ire: I first sympathized and asked how much the medication was per their pharmacy. It was somewhere around $200. At this revelation, I expressed my outrage and frustration, stating that “Yes, that costs way too much and I can’t believe it is that much. Had we known, we wouldn’t have thought of it.” I then moved on to explain that we had others’ in our practice whose plan covered a lot more for the cost of the medication than their insurance, and that I was genuinely surprised that insurance plan board-executives could just pick who they would serve by the scrimped contracts they wrote with pharmacies.

How insurances dictate what they cover is a legitimate issue, and many arguments can be made on how insurance companies should take into consideration the type of care their patient pools need (do not get me started on the multitude of Medicare supplements out there sold on insurance markets). This exact issue was the target I redirected the daughter’s ire towards, by first sympathizing and matching her own frustration, but aiming it towards the actual problem. Within a minute, the risk of actual argument and confrontation completely evaporated.

“Yes, the mistake is mine. Let’s do this to fix it.”

Sometimes, you won’t have the right to redirect anyone’s ire. Maybe you messed up somewhere during the week and that mistake has caught up with you. If you handle that mistake, the first thing that you shouldn’t do is try to redirect the blame onto something else. It is infinitely better to take responsibility for your own mistakes.

Not only will this help pacify the person you are talking to for a moment, it will set you up for the “Yes, but” portion of the conversation coming up next. Most people will give you the opportunity to amend the mistake if it is possible, and this will be when you fall back on the recommendations set in always having a plan. Be clear, be precise, and concise, on how you will address the issues your mistake has caused and how you will fix it.

“Let me find this out for you.”

You won’t have all the answers. Not all the time, it’s near impossible. Understanding buzzwords, however, will help maintain someone’s confidence and trust within you and will save your rapport in the long run. These buzzwords in conversation should always carry the insinuation that while you do not have the answer presently, you will find out for the person you’re talking to. Turn those “I don’t know”s into “Good question! Let me find out for you”, and “No idea” into “I don’t have the answer to that, but I’ll do some digging.” Learning these buzzwords will be instrumental to not only saving your own rapport; they will also help your reputation as a problem-solver.

Always in Control

Above everything else on this list, you are always the one who is in control of their emotions. Careful neutrality of your inner emotions and understanding that whatever uncomfortable situation you are in right now is only temporary will ensure that your risk for outburst and ruining the veneer of professionalism is minimized. Not once have I lost my temper towards anyone in the clinic (despite several instances where I may have wanted to). Showing that you can lose your cool will instantly make you stand out as an emotional, maybe even unstable, member of the team. Not that having emotions is bad. It’s healthy to express emotions, especially to confidants. But there is a time and place where not being in control of your own emotions when dealing with the emotions of others is not always good for maintaining the vocal gray, and your own charismatic neutrality.

Being charismatically neutral is a balancing act. There is a fine line between being too cold and callous with others, which is off-putting to almost everyone, to being too emotional or carefree, which does nothing to build professional relationships. Being “neutral” means to be sympathetic with others, and expressing to them you are open to receiving their emotions and understanding them; and it means being focused on the goal enough to guide others towards the ultimate point of any conversation. There is a science in conversation. And while it is unnecessary to understand that science completely… It is worthwhile to recognize that conversation is a field of science, with steps and measures one could take to reach desired outcomes.

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