Listen Without Frustration


Rev. George Doebler discusses creating relationships that last

When Rev. George Doebler landed at The University of Tennessee Medical Center in 1985, he’d already done time at San Quentin — as prison chaplain. A California native, he’d previously tried his hand as a farmer and cowboy, attended seminary and started a small church before a graduate degree program required an internship at the California state prison.

The internship was a turning point for Doebler. “I met people who were very bright but who had done just terrible stuff. I still have a file of some of the poems and stories they wrote that were very, very well done. And that led me to think, well, how do I understand this? So after San Quentin, I decided to do some more clinical training at St. Elizabeth Hospital in Washington, D.C., which is a federal mental hospital.”

Eventually that training brought him to Tennessee, where he oversaw the chaplaincy programs at the state’s mental health hospitals during their deinstitutionalization. Then the vice chancellor at UT Medical Center approached him to start a chaplaincy program at the hospital. Doebler told him he preferred to work with people struggling with mental illness.

“And he said, what makes you think we don’t have people dealing with that at the medical center? And he took me and sat me down in the emergency room. People were coming and going, and I saw acutely disturbed people who were given meds and sent back out. And so I told him I’d come on board.’

Thirty-five years later, Doebler, 82, still serves the chaplaincy program there as special advisor. It is one of the largest pastoral care programs in the state.

Given the health challenges of 2020, we asked Doebler to share his thoughts on coping during the pandemic and creating relationships that can survive crises.

How do you think people are dealing with relationships when they can’t be together?

You don’t need to be with someone to be connected. If I know someone and I love them, I don’t need to be physically present. We have two daughters and we talk to them regularly on the phone, but with the virus thing, they’re hesitant to come visit us because I’m old, you know. And I understand their hesitancy. It’s not because they don’t love us; they’re afraid I might get sick.

As the pandemic continues, do we develop psychological issues along with our concern for our health?

I think in some cases, they’re already there. They’re just heightened by this trauma and they become more pronounced. What’s curious to me is how little the psychological and psychiatric community is saying about what’s going on. It’s like they’ve kind of hidden. They’re saying we can’t, we don’t want to come to the hospital to get exposed so they pull back.

I think that people who are self-differentiated, who are pretty clear about who they are, seem to be coping well with this. The people who are having difficulty are not very differentiated. They found meaning in other people, in activities. People who are centered, you’re not going to hear about them. They’re being safe; they’re not going to make the news. They’re not making noise, carrying flags or not wearing masks. And they’re not in the hospitals sick with it. And they’re not in the news because it’s not a good story.

How are people managing grief when they can’t be with their loved ones as they’re dying?

For some, there are some beautiful moments; they are handling this very well. They’re talking on the phone, they’re with them as best they can be. I think how we grieve is how we’ve lived. How people cope with their grief has to do with how they’ve lived their lives. And if it’s a mom or dad who is dying and if there’s a lot of unresolved things with mom or dad, grief is harder because if they die and we have not come to terms with whatever that was, we feel like it’s not finished. And it’s not, but the issue was there probably since childhood for the kids.

People are confronted with a whole new paradigm. It’s a completely different world than it was in January of 2020. How do we manage that?

I tend to think that’s not true. Everybody’s talking about how the world’s changed. I don’t think it’s changed. I think it’s shifted. I think what’s happening with the virus, people have known that these viruses are going to come every 30 to 40 years. I think everybody was set in the way they were doing things. And so you shift something and they think everything has changed. And how they’re coping with this, how the culture’s coping with this has been there a long time. The tools they’re using and were trained to use don’t seem to fit, but there are people doing very well during this whole thing.

What are the proactive steps that people can take to improve the health of their relationships?

You need to be able to listen without frustration, to actively listen. How do I be less reactive when someone says something? And to know that what I’m feeling is me, my stuff; it doesn’t have anything to do with them. I believe it was Stephen Covey who said seek first to understand than to be understood.

When conversations become emotional, how we respond really says more about who we are than anything else. We’re talking about relationships. How we relate to people has to do with us, and how people respond to us has to do with who we are. 

I think it’s important to plant the seeds of greatness in people, to suggest where they could go or what they might be so they can consider ideas that they might not be considering. And then try to support them in where they want to go.   

Rev. Doebler can be reached at

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