Friday, October 19, 2007

Handling frustration with a smile

Years ago my southern mother tried diligently to drill into my head that I could catch more flies with honey than I could with vinegar. At the time I never quite understood why anyone would want to catch flies in the first place, but eventually I figured out this had to do with an overall approach to life. Basically, you get more when you're nice.

However, it is not always easy to be sweet in the midst of a frustrating battle with some anonymous bureaucrat who's being guided by a rulebook and lacks any semblance of common sense or the ability to actually resolve your problem. You know those people. You've probably talked to them on the phone more times than you can count. Maybe even yelled at them, despite the fact that deep down you know perfectly well that they didn't actually cause the problem.

Because this kind of thing happens way too often, I mentioned it to a friend recently, someone whose career specialty has been conflict resolution. I figured she'd know exactly how to handle these frustrating conversations. Alas, Sara had her own tale to tell, though she did ultimately offer a few tips. Here's what she wrote for me:

One day last week, I caught myself yelling over the phone. Not speaking loudly, or emphatically--yelling! I was talking to a representative from the insurance company that sells the policy I buy to supplement Medicare. I'm sure that the person I was talking to must have been thinking, I'm not paid enough to put up with this----stuff.

I was trying to deal with a recurring problem: I got a bill from my doctor for a certain test which she ordered for me. Both she and I thought that the treatment was covered. I checked my insurance booklet: it stated very clearly that this procedure is covered by my insurance.

When this sort of thing occurs, the payments in question are not chicken feed: this time I was being billed for $97, an amount I won't pay without a fight. But the phone representative continued to tell me that I was liable for that bill, eventually saying that my insurance coverage was not in effect at the time I had the test.

I'm not very proud of myself for yelling at the phone representative of the insurance company. I realize that it is likely that he did not make the rules, and doesn't have much discretion about how to enforce the rules. But he was on the other end of the line, I was very upset, and so I yelled at him.

This is a fairly frequent occurrence, and you'd think that I would know by now, my yelling does not solve the problem. And then, I have a Ph.D. in Communication and I specialized in communication and conflict for many many years. No excuse for my behavior! But knowing, in theory, how to best solve conflicts does not assure acting appropriately when I am confronted with a bill which I don't think is fair.

Once I had calmed down, and the insurance rep calmed down, he looked at my records and said the my coverage was in effect at the time of the test, and that I was not responsible for the bill of $97.

After hanging up, I did what communication scholars call retrospective sense making. I started to analyze why that phone call was so upsetting to me. And while the insurance company's error was annoying, some of the problem was of my own making. I spoke to the insurance representative as if he was the problem, and of course, that is not the case. The billing error was the problem. I might have avoided some aggravation by getting him to help me solve the problem, instead of acting like he was the adversary.

Secondly, by raising my voice to a very loud level, I was communicating anger and disrespect toward the insurance representative. No surprise that he responded in a defensive manner that seemed to be focused on protecting himself rather than solving my problem. I should have taken a deep breath and paused for a moment -- listening to my internal voice that tells me I am getting angry and therefore less thoughtful.

In a calmer frame of mind, I would have used language less likely to provoke hostility. Instead, my words had been accusing, controlling and certain of the rightness of my position and the superiority of my viewpoint.

I know better than to act this way! I know that describing a problem in a way that suggests that we are on equal footing and that it's possible that I might be in the wrong will convey my desire to solve the problem rather than to attack the person.

This scenario will be repeated. The incredible intricacies of dealing with healthcare make misunderstanding and errors inevitable. But perhaps next time I get billed in error, I can at least avoid escalating the problem by treating it as a problem, and not the fault of the person at the other end of the phone line. I can calm my anger and monitor my language so that I show as much respect for the insurance phone representative as I want him to show me. And if I achieve nothing else, I will at least preserve my own health by not letting a billing error give me high blood pressure!

I have to say after reading Sara's story and knowing her level of expertise I felt a whole lot better about my own lapses. On more than one occasion I've heard the outrage in my voice and taken a moment to calm down, take a deep breath, and then say something like, "I know this is not your fault, but I am so frustrated." It acknowledges that I'm angry, justifiably or not, and makes the person on the other end of the line more likely to want to help solve the problem. It's amazing how well this tactic has worked...when I manage to calm down enough to try it. One catalog company representative gave me a nice discount on my next purchase after acknowledging how irritating their particular customer service system was.

So, it looks as if Sara and my mother might be right...honey just may catch more flies than vinegar.

If you've bumped up against these frustrating walls with insurance companies, customer service reps or anyone else, let us know what's worked for you.

Sherryl Woods

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Blogger karende said...

I don’t usually end up in frustrating conversations by phone, but I certainly did with Social Security. First was when I applied for disability benefits. I did all the paperwork, had endless doctor’s appointments and tests done, and by golly, I was right - I was seriously disabled. However, the last person I talked to accused me explicitly of trying to use the system, just wanting those regular benefits instead of having to actually earn a living! I said that no one in their right mind would quit a good job in a profession they enjoyed, just to get a ‘guaranteed’ check for about 1/4 of what they made actually working. She insisted I was just another freeloader, said ‘I know all about people like you’ and totally ignored the fact that I’d been paying into the system that provided her paycheck for well over 40 years. My solution was to hire a lawyer and appeal the decision - which I won - then have him appeal again to get me approved retroactively - which they did. So much for the ‘I know all about people like you’ phone turkey. But I didn’t raise my voice, I just kept repeating the same things over until I realized she wasn’t interested and wasn’t listening. Sometimes you have to make an end run around the unpleasant ones.

The second time I had trouble with them was just after I was approved. That’s when I found out that Medicaid doesn’t cover people with Social Security benefits, and Medicare doesn’t kick in until two years after the benefits start. I have a number of disabilities, all of which hit at more or less the same time, and one of the people Social Security sent me to was a psychiatrist. I was ultimately approved on the grounds of his diagnosis, that I was suicidally depressed [actually, I was depressed by everything falling apart at once]. Well, I’m not the suicidal type, but I did think it might be nice to get some antidepressants to help with adjusting to my radical physical changes. First I called the Medicaid provider and found out I was no longer eligible. Then I called Social Security to see what they were going to do - what they were going to do was nothing. I said “It was the doctor you sent me to who wants this,” and they told me “That’s your problem, not ours.” I suppose if I’d actually gone ahead and killed myself, that little bit I was getting every month would have been dumped right back into the pot for someone else to get. Fortunately for me, I’m more the kind who gets mad, not the kind who cowers in fear and backs off. So that solution wasn’t all that effective - I still had to wait two years for Medicare - but the adrenaline rush from rage certainly wipes out any vestiges of depression!

I did have one other incident that was kind of funny, all things considered. A number of years ago I kept getting calls from different bill collectors for a medical treatment for my husband. No biggie, right? Well, this treatment, whatever it was, took place in a city that was about 300 miles from us by plane. Every one of the collection agents said “Well, maybe he drove there and you just didn’t know about it.” I said “In the first place, we live on an island. There’s no way to drive there - it takes a minimum of 12 hours on the ferry, then another 5 or 6 hours of driving. He didn’t fly over, he didn’t just drive up one afternoon. Believe me, I would have noticed if he’d been gone overnight, and I would have noticed if he’d bought a plane ticket. He was here at home. Show me the details of this bill, and if you can show me how he could be in two places at once, I’ll pay it.” They never did, and I never did.

October 21, 2007 4:52 PM  
Blogger Sherryl said...

This post has been removed by the author.

October 24, 2007 5:36 AM  
Blogger Sherryl said...

Speaking of frustrations, I am technologically inept. I am going to try for the umpteenth time to post a response to Karende and get it up here without typographical errors.

Karende, I really admire your attitude in the face of all those frustrations. And you've reminded me of an incident from a few years back.

I was dealing with the Internal Revenue Service after my dad's death. They'd sent me a slew of papers, including a request for his "new address." I was somewhat bemused. I called and explained, "I'd like to think I know where he is, but I can't be a hundred percent certain of that." Once the agent stopped laughing, she immediately dealt with the problem. Just one more example that honey can indeed be more effective than vinegar, even with the staid IRS.

October 24, 2007 5:47 AM  
Blogger karende said...

And that reminds me of a story similar to yours that happened to someone a few years ago. This man's father died, and bill collectors were sending all kinds of nasty collection letters to his former address. The son called them as the letters arrived, explained that the man had died and offered to send a copy of the death certificat. Most of them took him up on his offer, but one persistent one kept insisting she wanted his current address. Out of sheer frustration, the man gave her the street address of the cemetary and the plot number. The woman, still rather snippy, asked if he was sure that was the current address. The son said it was as current and permanent as it could be, that's where the man was buried. He wasn't sure just who would actually open the letter, but yes, that really was the address, and good luck contacting him.

November 1, 2007 5:46 PM  

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