There’s a tendency when we hear negative criticism about our performance to dismiss it – because we are busy and overworked, so the mistake we have made is acceptable, because the complainant doesn’t understand our context, or because it’s coming from someone “who always moans”.
But what if you considered every complaint that came your way with empathy and the belief that maybe the person has a point?
Last week, I went to a day on handling NHS complaints using empathy organised by C&C Empathy Training. The company is co-owned by nurse Vanessa Carter and Carolyn Cleveland. Carolyn had a horrific experience going through a complaints process after her adopted teenage daughter died in hospital after suffering incredible pain and not being cared for in a joined-up, high-quality or empathic way.
Carolyn’s quest for the truth began after she found out that observations had missed or misrecorded symptoms and signs that could have potentially saved her daughter.
”What she wanted to do was understand what had happened – make sense of it and make peace with it”
What was fascinating about her story is that she is not bitter or vitriolic about those clinicians who robbed her of years of happiness with “her girl” as she described her. She was calm, measured and even philosophical. What she wanted to do was understand what had happened – make sense of it and make peace with it. Until that happened, she couldn’t move on.
She says the very people stopping her from moving on were those working in the trust where her daughter died. Because for too long she was caught up in a system that tried to block her (because she wasn’t the birth mother). At a time when she needed to feel like her loss was as great as any mother’s, she says she was made to feel second rate.
Worse than that, once she got into the room to discuss it, she said she felt dismissed as if she was on a crusade. She was ignored, dismissed, sidelined and talked down to. She was told what she needed and not asked.
”For too long she was caught up in a system that tried to block her”
She (and many other speakers that day) said that what most people want when they complain is to be listened to, I mean really listened to and believed, and empathised with.
The message of the day was to encourage us to really connect with people around us. Take time to listen to what someone is saying and look into their eyes and understand their truth and their pain.
I know what you’re thinking – when you’re as busy as you are, you don’t have time to be empathic. If you spend most of your shift deciding whether to stop Mrs Smith falling when she gets out of bed at midnight because she wants the loo, prevent Mr Sparks running down the corridor because he’s confused, get a bedpan to Mrs Bloggs before she soils the bed or administer pain medication to Mr Brown on time to stop his screams waking up everyone else on the ward in the small hours, you don’t have time to stop, look and listen to your patients.
”I can’t imagine how most nurses deal daily with the choices they have to make and the pressure they work under”
I am sympathetic – and empathic to that – I really am. I can’t imagine how most nurses deal daily with the choices they have to make and the pressure they work under.
But in a way, I think that means you need to learn how to flex your empathy muscle more – and use it to be empathic to each other.
Nursing is a hard job. And it isn’t going to get any easier or any better rewarded. And the only people that are equipped and able to take care of other nurses is, well nurses.
So while I believe that empathy with patients is vital in excellent nursing care, I believe it has to start at home. When was the last time you asked your colleague how they felt at the end of a shift and really listened to how they felt, rather than just waiting to tell them how you had had a much worse 12 hours?
Empathy is a skill, and people who choose this profession have it in spades. But like everything else, it really is a question of use it or lose it.