Blog | Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Making nice

Over the summer, a couple of news stories stood out to me as examples of lemons and lemonade. First, the prix du citron:

Tony Hayward of BP, after his company's oil rig 'malfunctioned' and poured millions of barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. He had a few choice doozies. You probably remember: "The Gulf of Mexico is a very big ocean. The amount of volume of oil and dispersant we are putting into it is tiny in relation to the total water volume."

Free lemonade by Rochelle et al via FlickrNow technically, he was correct. But emotionally, he couldn't have been more wrong. His comment made him appear like a callous and unsympathetic weasel.

A bit later, when the heat from the spill and the negative media attention were at their height, he was quoted as saying: "There's no one who wants this thing over more than I do. I'd like my life back."

Oh, really? Listen bub, nobody whose life has been affected by the oil leak wants to hear about your needs. Can you say TONE DEAF?

A few days later, when spotted watching his yacht in a race, it was clear the man himself had become too toxic to stay at the helm of BP.

Example #2: Another summer media kerfuffle, a kind of strange one, that showed a way of making lemonade out of a real stinkbomb lemon.

Remember Shirley Sherrod, the career USDA employee who became ensnared in an out-of-context webinoma (I just made that up: a cancerous internet situation)? Two minutes of 30-plus minute speech were taken out of context in a way that made her appear racist. The public outcry led to her firing before anyone had a chance to review the evidence and learn the full story.

After learning that they had been snookered by the slanted portrayal of Sherrod, federal officials backtracked from their criticism and offered her a promotion, handling outreach and advocacy and addressing issues of race both in and outside the agency.

From my vantage point, even beyond getting her job back, it was President Obama's phone call to her that really started to turn the sour sweet. They spoke for seven minutes, and Obama didn't specifically apologize. But he expressed empathy, and asked her to continue her work on behalf of the agency and the federal government.

This was a classic example of "making nice." Using the ol' telephone to reach out and work through a problem or redress a concern.

I'd love to hear your stories of people doing you wrong and then making it right. Or doing you wrong and just leaving it that way. How did it make you feel? What would you have liked to hear?

In medical care, there's growing evidence that making nice is a win-win. Patients win because when they feel wronged, someone is validating their concerns and offering those simple little words: "I'm sorry." The evidence shows that it saves money on the hospital's side: Less anger means fewer lawsuits and claims of damages.

Nothing wrong with a win-win in my book.

This post by John H. Schumann, FACP, originally appeared at GlassHospital. Dr. Schumann is a general internist in Chicago's south side, and an educator at the University of Chicago, where he trains residents and medical students in both internal medicine and medical ethics. He is also faculty co-chair of the university's human rights program. His blog, GlassHospital, provides transparency on the workings of medical practice and the complexities of hospital care, illuminates the emotional and cognitive aspects of caregiving and decision-making from the perspective of an active primary care physician, and offers behind-the-scenes portraits of hospital sanctums and the people that inhabit them.