Emotional Intelligence: Build by Reading Poetry

By Dean Gianakos, MD, FACP
October 4, 2019

The ability to recognize and manage one’s emotions is critical to a physician leader’s success. Learn how reading poems in a leadership journal club can contribute to the development of emotional intelligence.

Dean Gianakos

Dean Gianakos

LAST YEAR, OUR CHIEF MEDICAL OFFICER introduced poetry readings to our journal club for physician leaders. The group of five to 10 people meets every two months over lunch. We start with a poem, followed by a discussion of an article, book or administrative challenge. It’s not unusual for physicians to draw parallels between a poem and the issue at hand.

Take a moment to reflect on the following poem by the physician-poet William Carlos Williams, written more than 70 years ago:  

It is difficult

to get the news from poems

yet men die miserably every day

for lack

of what is found there.1

Williams knew a thing or two about medicine and poetry. He practiced general medicine, pediatrics and obstetrics in Rutherford, New Jersey, where he worked long hours and made frequent house calls to blue-collar families. He is better known as one of America’s finest 20th-century poets, often drawing inspiration from his patients. He was known to scribble lines of poetry on prescription pads between seeing patients, as well as typing poetry lines late into the evening.

In the poem above — it is a stanza from a longer poem, Asphodel, That Greeny Flower, published in 1955 — Williams obviously is not referring to the “news” we find in newspapers or medical journals. He implies there are truths in poems that one can’t find anywhere else. “News” is a metaphor for the emotions, feelings and perceptions that are communicated in a poem. Through language, rhythm, rhyme and figures of speech, poets like Williams create emotional pictures — images that help readers understand not only the emotions of characters portrayed in poems, but also their own inner lives.2

Poems expand our world of feeling and meaning. They strengthen our empathic muscles. Just as it takes empathy to understand a patient, or a colleague’s perspective, it requires empathy, or imagination, to understand what a poet is trying to convey.

Williams says men die miserably every day because they do not read poems. It’s not difficult to imagine how a beautiful poem might renew the spirit of a depressed person.          

Reading poems also requires effort (“it’s difficult to get the news from poems”) in the same way “reading” patients requires effort, skill and practice. Poems also sharpen our observation and language skills. Every word, line and punctuation mark matter to a poet, just as every word, expression, and gesture matter to a physician leader during a tough conversation.

Over the last 20 years, I have collected poems that emotionally resonate with me. Former poet laureate Billy Collins echoes my own thoughts about why people read poetry: “I don’t think people read poetry because they’re interested in the poet. I think they read poetry because they are interested in themselves. I read poetry to discover things about myself, not so much to discover things about Emily Dickinson.”3

Common themes in my collection include doctoring, friendship, aging, leadership, teaching, love and loss. Every poem in some way explores self-awareness and personal growth. As a busy physician, I favor poems that are short, and not abstruse. In the past, I have incorporated them into teaching rounds, lectures and faculty retreats. Now, our journal club provides an ideal forum for discussion of poems and serves to strengthen emotional intelligence among physician leaders.

Back to Williams: Do men really die miserably because they don’t read poetry? Consider the following poem by Robert Frost:

When a friend calls to me from the road

And slows his horse to a meaning walk,

I don’t stand still and look around

On all the hills I haven’t hoed,

And shout from where I am, ‘What is it?’

No, not as there is time to talk.

I thrust my hoe in the mellow ground,

Blade-end up and five feet tall,

And plod: I go up to the stone wall

For a friendly visit.4

Imagine a colleague who has slowed to a meaningful walk in front of your office.5 You are busy completing charts. She is trying to get your attention. Why? Unknown to you, she is contemplating suicide and wants to talk. Maybe you remember this poem and decide to drop what you are doing. There will always be charts to complete, and messages to be answered. A friendly visit with your colleague just might save her life. Your remembrance of this poem (and possibly this essay) might save another life.

A poem also has the potential to save a person from boredom, or inspire new thoughts:

Think in ways you've never thought before.

If the phone rings, think of it as carrying a message

Larger than anything you've ever heard,

Vaster than a hundred lines of Yeats.

Think that someone may bring a bear to your door,

Maybe wounded and deranged; or think that a moose

Has risen out of the lake, and he's carrying on his antlers

A child of your own whom you've never seen.

When someone knocks on the door, think that he's about

To give you something large: tell you you're forgiven,

Or that it's not necessary to work all the time, or that

it's

Been decided that if you lie down, no one will die.6

Another thing to think about: How could a physician leader use this poem to talk about physician burnout?

After reading Frost’s poem a while ago, our leadership group discussed parts of Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World, by retired Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal.7 In his book, McChrystal shares lessons learned as a commander in Iraq and Afghanistan.

He rightly notes what most of us know: Small teams are adaptable and flexible. They more easily develop trust and learn how to respond quickly to changing conditions.  He provides elegant examples how small teams can be scaled to the organizational level, to create a team of teams. Cross-team collaboration, empowered execution and shared consciousness — in a word, trust — are the building blocks.

How do team members develop trust? They spend time together.

“This is about more than the feel-good effects of ‘bonding.’ It is done because teams whose members know one another deeply perform better. Any coach knows that these sorts of relationships are vital for success. A fighting force with good individual training, a solid handbook, and a sound strategy can execute a plan efficiently, and as long as the environment remains fairly static, the odds for success are high. But a team fused by trust and purpose is much more potent. Such a group can improvise a coordinated response to dynamic, real-time developments.”7      

In our own organizations, how do we make trust and purpose a priority? How do team members get to know each other inside out, so that they are ready to adapt quickly to change, master execution and make a “team of teams” a reality? There is one significant way, according to McChrystal and Frost.

The general takes 251 pages to say it; Frost says it in 10 lines of poetry. Turn off your computer, put your phone away and plod (it takes intentional effort). For more than a moment, forget about the charts, reports and tasks that need to be done — take a half-hour for a friendly visit. Talk with a teammate. Get to know him or her. Get to know him deeply. The conversation might save his life. It might save your own. It might even save your organization.

Dean Gianakos, MD, FACP, is director of medical education for Centra Health in Lynchburg, Virginia.

dean.gianakos@centrahealth.com 

REFERENCES

  1. Williams, WC. William Carlos Williams: Selected Poems. New York: New Directions, 1969.
  2. Gianakos, D. Reading poems, saving lives. Hektoen International: A Journal of Medical Humanities. 6(1); Winter, 2014.
  3. Interviews: Billy Collins, Bringing Poetry to the Public. PowellsBooks.Blog. October 10, 2006.
  4. Frost, R. A Time to Talk. Accessed online from The Writer’s Almanac, January 31, 2017.
  5. Gianakos, D. A Time to Talk. Annals of Internal Medicine. 2017;167(12):894.
  6. Bly, R. Things to Think. Accessed online from The Writer’s Almanac. March 11, 2107.
  7. McChrystal, S. Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World. New York: Penguin, 2015.

This article appeared in the Jul/Aug 2019 issue of the Physician Leadership Journal

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