Confidence vs. Competence


Do you know what you’re doing?

Do you look like you know what you’re doing?

Although these things are connected, they aren’t the same.

Some of the most common advice a new EMT might hear is to be more confident. And it’s justified: the typical new guy looks and behaves like a scared bunny, and it’s perceivable by everyone around him. You can’t be an effective field provider that way. Other responders won’t take you seriously, patients will decide they’re better off taking the bus, and other medical personnel will mentally delete your input. You won’t make the right decisions, because you won’t have the confidence to commit to them. Plus, your shifts will be nerve-wracking, and your hair may fall out. No good.

Oddly enough, though, this isn’t the worst-case scenario. Worse still is this: you’re supremely confident… even though you’re clueless.

Confidence is a statement. It says to the world, “Don’t worry, I know what I’m doing.” In response, they grant you further responsibility. “If this guy knows what he’s doing, then let him handle it,” they think.

If you project that message, yet are making things up as you go along, you’re telling a lie. You will be given responsibility, only to err terribly. You were trusted according to your level of confidence, but didn’t deserve it; your confidence exceeded your actual competence.

So, you need both. We want EMTs on the ambulance with the ability to assess, treat, and transport sick people. And we want them to demonstrate that they have that ability, by their words, body language, and appearance.

The good news is that confidence tends to grow from competence, which how it should be. As you learn the ropes, you become more comfortable, smoother in your actions, and more certain of your conclusions. Rest assured, you’ll broadcast this difference to everyone around you.

So where’s the problem? The problem arises when there’s an imbalance between the two qualities. Some people are just naturally “nervous-looking” or withdrawn; they may be entirely competent, but you wouldn’t know it by looking at them. These are the folks who need a slap on the ass, and to be told to throw their chest out, strut a little, and say it like they mean it. Even generally mousy people can usually learn to develop a “patient face,” a professional, commanding persona they wear during calls. (Think of your favorite medic… now think of his “medic voice.” Talk about heavy artillery.)

Conversely, some people are either overly confident in their abilities, or have simply been taught to fake it until they make it. (“A commander can be wrong,” as Arthur C. Clarke once wrote, “but never uncertain.”) In fact, some of the most difficult partners to work with fall into this category — the “newish” guy who can perform the everyday basics of the job, but whose cockiness swelled far beyond his actual knowledge, to the extent that he can no longer be educated or corrected. He knows it all, so he’s done learning. These folks need to be taken down a peg, because while ignorance is temporary, wrongness can last forever. If they’re simply afraid to admit when they’re unsure, it helps to reassure them that nobody has it all figured out yet, this is a team sport, and asking for help is much better than dropping the ball.

In the end, the goal should be supreme confidence, clearly palpable to those around you, yet directly built upon a foundation of clinical competence. If you’re good enough, you don’t have to put on a show; you can even hide your moves a little, because they’re going to come out anyway, and a certain amount of humility is professionally appropriate. (Plus, you won’t have to act like a douche all the time.) If you know your stuff but come up short in confidence, that’s your cue to start strutting a little more. And if you lack both, then start by developing quiet competence — not ignorant cockiness.

Dialing it Down a Notch

Bringing order to chaos. It’s hard to suggest a more important skill for an EMT.

Emergencies are chaotic. Heck, even non-emergent “emergencies” are chaotic. The nature of working in the field is that most situations are uncontrolled. Part of our job is to bring some order to it all, sort the raw junk into categories, discard most of the detritus, and loosely mold the whole ball of wax into something the emergency department can recognize. Call us chaos translators. This is important stuff; it’s why the House of God declared, “At a cardiac arrest, the first procedure is to take your own pulse”; and it’s why we walk rather than run, and talk rather than shout.

The thing is, it’s not just those of us on the provider side that need this. Oftentimes patients need it too. Imagine: every other day of your life, you’re walking around without acute distress, in control of your situation and knowing what to expect. Today, something you didn’t anticipate and can’t understand has ambushed you — a broken leg, a stabbing chest pain — and you don’t know how to handle that. So you called 911 to make some sense of it all.

Most ailments are side effects of other problems: the fear of going mad, the anxiety of being so alone among so many, the shortness of breath that always occurs after glimpsing your own death. Calling 911 is a fast and free way to be shown an order in the world much stronger than your own disorder. Within minutes, someone will show up at your door and ask you if you need help, someone who has witnessed so many worse cases than your own and will gladly tell you this. When your angst pail is full, he’ll try and empty it. (Bringing Out the Dead)

With some patients, this is more true than with others. With some patients, there may be little to no underlying complaint; there is mainly just panic, a crashing wave of anxiety, a psychological anaphylactic reaction to a world that is suddenly too much for them. Particularly in those cases, but to a certain extent with everybody, bringing that patient to a place of calm may be exactly what they need. I have transported patients to the hospital who clearly and unequivocally were merely hoping to go somewhere that things made sense.

The burned-out medic likes to park himself behind the stretcher, zip his lip, and allow things to burn out on their own. This may sound merciless, but there is a certain wisdom to it.

We are very good in this business at escalating the level of alarm. Eight minutes after you hang up the phone, suddenly sirens are echoing down your street, heavy boots are echoing in your hall, and five burly men are crowding into your bathroom. We have wires, we have tubes, we have many, many questions. What a mess. So sometimes, once we’ve finished ratcheting everything up, it behooves us to pause, step back, and make a conscious effort to turn down the volume.

Take the stimuli of the environment, of the situation, and dial it way back. One of our best tools is to simply get the patient away from the scene — the heart of the chaos — and into the back of the ambulance, where we’re in control. It’s quiet, it’s comfortable, and there is less to look at. Move slowly, consider dimming the lights, and whenever possible avoid transporting with lights and sirens. Demonstrate calm, relaxed confidence, as if there’s truly nothing to be excited about. Some patients with drug reactions, or some developmental or psychological disorders (such as autism spectrum), may be absolutely unmanageable unless you can reduce their level of stimulation. Just put a proverbial pillow over their senses.

If you’re stuck on scene, try to filter out the environment a little. If bystanders or other responders (such as fire and police) are milling around, either clear out unnecessary personnel or at least ask them to leave the room for a bit. Make sure only one person is asking questions, and explain everything you do before you do it.

There’s a human connection here, and if you can master it, you can create an eye of calm even as sheet metal is being ripped apart around you. Look directly into your patient’s eyes, and speak to them calmly, quietly, and directly. Take their hand. Use their name, and make sure they know yours. Narrate what’s going on as it occurs, describe what they can expect next, and try to anticipate their emotional responses (surprise, fear, confusion). If they start to lose their anchor, bring them back; their world for now should consist only of themselves and you. To achieve this you need to be capable of creating a real connection; it is their focus on you that will help them to block out everything else. Done correctly, they may not want you to leave their side once you arrive at the hospital; you’re their lifeline, and it may feel like you’re abandoning them. Try to convince them that the worst is over, and they’ve arrived somewhere that’s safe, structured, and prepared to make things right. They’ve “made it.”

Applying these ideas isn’t always simple, and learning to recognize how much each patient needs the volume turned down requires experience. But just remember that no matter who they are, no matter what their complaint, most people didn’t call 911 because they wanted things more chaotic. Try to be a carrier of calm.

The Way You Do the Things You Do

Cops are gruff and authoritative. Librarians are helpful and a bit bookish. When a plumber bends over you can see his crack.

We’re all sophisticated and modernized folks here, so we understand that stereotypes aren’t true. Moreover, their broad, unthinking application can lead to many errors and evils.

Still, there’s often a certain amount of truth to them, or at least a systematic error behind them, and it can be worthwhile to ponder on this kernel. Why, for instance, do we associate certain personalities and affects — certain demeanors — with certain professions?

There are doctors of every shade out there, but what do you typically expect when you meet one? Probably his shoes are tied (and even polished) and he looks well-groomed. He shakes your hand and looks you in the eye. He listens carefully, expresses himself clearly, and generally presents the image of a serious and dedicated professional.

Nurses? Again, there are more varieties here than at any Baskin-Robbins, but we find that some traits are common. A bit hurried and no-nonsense, you might say, and a little feisty. Yet deep down, they’re caregivers at heart. And they wear comfortable shoes, and they dig free coffee.

My point is, we have these stereotypes because to a certain extent, the jobs dictate, demand, and develop certain types of behavior. The physician spent twelve years working towards this job title, a large portion of which was spent either trying to get himself accepted somewhere important or being instructed on how he should look, talk, and think. The nurses, they spend eight hours a day walking quickly from bed to bed, playing middleman between the vagaries of difficult patients, difficult doctors, and difficult bureaucracies. Imagine how you’d behave.

So, once we’ve put in enough time that we’re walking the walk and talking the talk, how do we behave in EMS?

Mostly, we behave with a kind of breezy insouciance. One part humor, one part world-weariness, one part quiet competence (if not outright cocky arrogance), and a large dash of sarcasm and cynicism (which we hopefully remember to switch off when we meet patients). We strive to be the kind of people whose panic-o-meter has no readings higher than Hmm…

We are unflappable; we’ve seen it all, done it all, and the only thing crazier than the stories we hear in the crew room are the ones we try to top them with. We are generally unimpressed. We haven’t run toward or away from anything since high school gym class. We happily eat our lunch after cleaning brain matter from our boots.

The prototypical paramedic rocks out to Journey en route to the call; he jokes with the patient and reassures them with casual self-assuredness; he easily improvises an IV using a cocktail straw and large safety pin; he’s businesslike and to-the-point with bystanders; and he flirts with the receiving nurse at the hospital. A hundred years ago he could have gotten away with wearing a cape and a sword; a hundred years from now he’ll probably own a jetpack. He is not quite a god, but he does understand if you got them confused.

As always, there are variations. But this is the basic mold of our kind.

Why are we this way? And is it a good thing?

In EMS, we do our work fast, and cut shallow. Most of our patient interactions last under an hour in total, which doesn’t leave much time for either nonsense or space-filling. Yet we also work with high-acuity, high-risk pathologies — heart attacks, major trauma, and so forth — that need to be quickly found, explicated, and managed. In the chaotic prehospital environment, our patient, our scene, and our course of care is often muddled with obstacles and red herrings; in order to function, we have to cultivate powerful and aggressive pattern filters that allow us to isolate the essential elements of a situation and pursue the key decision-points like an unshakable bloodhound.

The attitude also protects us, and perhaps it protects our patients. By skimming over the surface of every call and every patient, we never get dragged too deeply into the mud. As they say, it’s not our emergency, and if we acted like each emergency was a freak-out, we wouldn’t last very long. If we treat it like a laundry run, we can remain ready and in service for the next one. And the patients? They get the reassuring sensation of being cared for by someone who projects the message: “I’ve treated six people sicker than you already, and I haven’t even had my coffee yet.”

So is this a good thing? It clearly has benefits. But it has its negatives as well.

When we try to imagine behaving in the field like that well-tempered physician behaves at the bedside, the very idea seems bizarre to us. A swashbuckling air seems central to who we are; could we still bang through a full patient interview and physical exam in 120 seconds otherwise? Could we still concoct the same weird and wonderful solutions for our problems? C’mon, we couldn’t do this stuff by speaking slowly and wearing a cardigan.

And maybe there’s truth to that. But it’s also true that we lose something when we go this route. We lose a degree of professionalism, which affects our perception in the eyes of colleagues, patients, and the public. We lose the ability to form a certain type of bond with the patient, based upon a certain type of trust and respect; we gain a different sort of bond, but the loss is still real. And maybe, by standing too far back from the action and poking it with our toe, we also lose some of the compassion and humanity that make this job worth doing at all.

So I don’t have any prescriptions, and I’m not suggesting that we make an industry-wide effort to change our culture. But these are things worth thinking about, because automatic or implicit behaviors are the hardest to recognize, and the fact that we all do something doesn’t mean it’s the best thing.