Blog | Friday, May 3, 2019

"I would be angry too"

I was recently taking a Virgin Atlantic flight from London to Boston. Whenever I go back to England, I either fly with 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 ticked off 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. 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 communication.

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 also separates you from the actual company (even though you are employed by them). When the pilot then offered a way to submit complaints, he also showed that he wanted the passengers to be compensated and 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 which I read last year, The Virgin Way).

But back to health care. As a hospital doctor, whenever I've had a patient or family member who clearly has something unacceptable happen, despite our best efforts at the hectic frontlines—such as a cancelled procedure at 5 pm after waiting all day, or when they've been hanging around for more than 24 hours for another specialist to see them, and it hasn't happened 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 email). 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 saying a robotic, “We're sorry.” It's a communication technique that I'd encourage you to use too, when faced with a similar situation. Just a simple one-liner that rolls of 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 potential angry or frustrating situation needs to be quickly diffused. Usually, it's just immediate good and empathetic communication that can do the trick.

Suneel Dhand is an internal medicine physician, author and speaker. He is the founder of DocSpeak Communications and co-founder at DocsDox. He blogs at his self-titled site, where this post first appeared.