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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