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Does ‘Sorry’ Have to be the Hardest Word?

May 31, 2019
What does ‘sorry’ mean? Why is it so hard to say? Why is it so important to hear?

When a complaint comes to the VCMS, the initial conversation with the owner always concludes with the question: ‘What are you asking the practice to do? What is your desired outcome?’. 

In almost every complaint, the owner includes an apology as one aspect of the resolution. 

Why? The owner is unhappy with some aspect of the care provided or service received. The interaction with the practice is not as they expected. They may have concerns about fees. They may be worried that the clinical approach was wrong, or circumstances mean their interaction has not met their expectations. 

What sits at the heart of the complaint, is how the owner feels. If they have felt dismissed or ignored, this perception will mean the dissatisfaction can quickly escalate into a complaint. 

Why do we worry about saying “sorry”?

As a solicitor who dealt with insurance claims and disputes, I know the adage – ‘admit nothing, don’t say a thing’. The fear of admitting to an error holds us back. We then rely on Ronan Keating’s advice – ‘you say it best, when you say nothing at all’. This, however, is not helpful in a complaint situation. 

Recognising that no one is happy or wished for a particular outcome recognises and acknowledges the impact, but is not an admission. Taking advice (from indemnity insurers or legal advisors) on any potential culpability will help to give the confidence to know how to best approach the apology, and to what extent a culpable apology is appropriate. 

Confidence is key to the relationship between vet and owner, and when this wanes, complaints arise. Trying to resolve a complaint when the trust is wavering will be more challenging. Addressing and acknowledging the emotional impact or trigger of the complaint has to be a good starting point. 

Empathy is as vital to vets as a stethoscope. An apology can be powerful as it shows, in a tangible way, how the practice has acknowledged the owners’ concerns and are willing to display this to the owner in a physical way. Often this is all that is needed to reassure owners that their concerns have been ‘listened to and acted on’. Showing an owner that you have heard and understand their feelings means you will be empathising and they will sense you are taking them seriously. This does not mean agreeing with them or accepting their complaint. 

In the same way we do in our own personal lives, we recognise someone’s distress or an unhappy event by saying ‘I’m sorry to hear…’. This is not an admission of any fault or liability. You are not agreeing with the owner. By listening and responding empathetically, the other person will hear the emotional connection. You are then better placed to have a constructive dialogue – what is the real reason behind the complaint? What is that that they have not understood?

A 2014 Harvard Business School study, explored the power and impact of apologies in situations where the person making the apology was not accepting any personal responsibility, i.e. ‘sorry to hear it rained during your camping trip’. Research shows that apologies are helpful in re-establishing or cementing trust, and also managing the ongoing interaction. 

This is incredibly useful in the vet-owner relationship where trust is so crucial. If the owner is then listening and willing to take on board the information or explanation you are going to share with them, they are more likely to digest this. 

You must be sure that the owner has truly heard and understood. Moving into explanations before the owner feels you have understood why they are unhappy can often make the situation worse. The owner may take explanations as being defensive or critical of their actions. 

How the apology is delivered is key in rebuilding trust or the laying the foundations to allow this to happen as the conversation continues. 

Independent mediation for veterinary professionals and their clients