“I would be angry too”

“I would be angry too”

Empathy is key to good communication

June 2019
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getting angry and showing empathy to patients
Getty Images: drante

Published in the June/July 2019 issue of Today’s Physician

I WAS RECENTLY taking a Virgin Atlantic flight from London to Boston. Whenever I go back to England, I fly with either British Airways or Virgin (and if I’m completely honest and giving a recommendation, British Airways edges it for me in terms of overall experience—although it’s very close, and comes with the BA price tag too!). After we boarded in London, the pilot made his pre-flight announcement:

“Welcome aboard flight etc., etc. … The journey time will be etc., etc. … And I regret to inform you that despite the best efforts of our engineers, there will be no in-flight entertainment for this whole flight! I’m really sorry, and to be honest I would be really angry too. We do have a number of ways we can make this up to you. If you submit a complaint to Virgin Atlantic, we can give you miles or compensate you in other ways too … ”

I was so impressed with the way the pilot handled this huge inconvenience on a flight lasting several hours.

We’re often in situations that need to be quickly diffused.

There were surprisingly few groans from the passengers after the announcement, although we were obviously disappointed. The way the pilot went about offering his apologies was outstanding, and a lesson in good communication.

A display of empathy
It’s actually a line I use as well in health care, and one that we can all utilize in the appropriate circumstance. When you say: “I would be angry too … ,” you are instantly displaying empathy and putting yourself in the shoes of the other person. It makes you seem human, and it also separates you from the actual company (even though you are employed by it).

When the pilot then offered a way to submit complaints, he also showed that he wanted the passengers to be compensated and that he recognized the inconvenience—despite encouraging a complaint against his own company. The Virgin brand of companies is of course known for doing things differently; Sir Richard Branson has always been a hero of mine, and one of the best international ambassadors for Britain for the last few decades. (I’d also highly recommend his book on leadership that I read last year, “The Virgin Way.”)

But back to health care. As a hospital doctor, whenever I’ve had patients or family members who clearly have something unacceptable happen, despite our best efforts on the hectic frontlines—such as a procedure cancelled at 5 p.m. after waiting all day, or hanging around for more than 24 hours for another specialist to see them, and it hasn’t happened yet for whatever reason—I use a similar technique.

I sit down next to them and tell them that I would be just as angry and that I will give the appropriate feedback. I also encourage them to do the same through the appropriate channels, whether it’s writing a letter or sending an e-mail.

Tamping down anger or frustration
Of course, I don’t want anyone to get into trouble who works for the same organization or for the name of my hospital to be tarnished. But most of the time, simply saying these words, showing you care and giving the person options is enough.

It means so much more than just a robotic: “We’re sorry.” It’s a communication technique I’d encourage you to use too when faced with a similar situation: Just a simple one-liner that rolls off your lips, and say it with real empathy.

I would hazard a guess that very few of the passengers on that flight will even bother submitting claims for additional air miles. Perhaps they wouldn’t have anyway, but how the pilot broke the bad news was still exemplary. Any public-facing job will have to deal with these types of situations when a potentially angry or frustrating situation needs to be quickly diffused. Usually, immediate, good and empathetic communication can do the trick.

Suneel DhandSuneel Dhand, MD, 
is a physician, author and speaker. He is co-founder of DocsDox, a service that helps physicians connect directly with health care facilities to find moonlighting and per diem jobs, minus the middleman. Visit him at www.suneeldhand.com where this commentary was originally published.

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