Read the room
"So, are you doing something fun today?" the phlebotomist asked my daughter. Mind you, Lily had a look of terror on her face. She had been sick for days and was petrified about getting blood work. That's why she was walking and acting so tentatively. She was wiped out and worried.
I told the phlebotomist Lily was quite concerned about having blood drawn, and then she realized this was not exactly a routine visit and got a co-worker to come help. The draw didn't go easily; she had to feel around for a while (so much for my assurances that it would be smooth since these people do this all the time). When she was almost finished, I said, "Please give Lily a big Band-Aid, for bragging rights to her little brother." It was mostly a joke, but it was still my attempt to signal that this was a big deal for Lily.
So what did the phlebotomist do? She gave my mature 11-year-old a My Little Pony Band-Aid. Seriously?!
I was frustrated, but tried to give her grace. We've all failed to read the room before, whether it's a room of one or a room of twenty. Here are three simple tips if you need to improve at this:
Pay attention to body language. Ever see a couple who's far out of earshot, yet you can easily tell they're arguing? Actions really do speak louder than words. Look and observe.
Listen before speaking. This may not always be possible in a healthcare setting, but in many others we can listen to what people are talking about - and how - before we barge in. Then you might ask, "You seem upset; do you want to talk about it?" which is a lot more compassionate than "How are you?" to someone who's obviously been crying.
Check your understanding. Ask if you are interpreting their words and/or actions correctly. "I get the sense I've come at a bad time; should I come back later?"
You may still get it wrong but you will reap the benefits of trying to get it right.