You DON’T Feel Their Pain

I’ve recently discovered that I have been giving some bad advice to people.  Maybe it’s not bad advice, but perhaps a better way to phrase it is “Incomplete Advice.”  I’d like to take this opportunity to remedy that oversight.

As with most epiphany moments in my life, this one begins with a story.  At the end of September of this year, I was given some pretty frightening news from my doctors – they suspected that I had a brain tumor or multiple sclerosis.  I’d been having headaches and blurred vision and balance problems, and it seemed despite my insistence to the optometrist and my regular MD that it was just an eye glass prescription issue, I was saddled with this incomplete diagnosis and period of emotional and mental uncertainty and turmoil.

See, I could deal with it if it was a brain tumor.  I’ve been through the cancer and the chemo, and I’m nothing if I’m not a fighter when it comes to those things.  Cancer and a shortened life are tragic, but by damn, I’d go down swinging.  I knew nothing about MS, but was told by a good friend who has it that normal life is a possibility, so that gave me hope.

What I couldn’t deal with was waiting for over 10 days to get my MRI scheduled because my insurance was delaying the process.  Or, more honestly, what I couldn’t deal with was not knowing what it was that I needed to be dealing with.

On the 10th day, after hearing nothing from the insurance company and hearing from the imaging location that it hadn’t yet been approved, I finally called Great West (a Cigna provider that runs all their decision making skills through Satan himself.).  Please understand by this point in time that I was having tremendous headaches, increasing in intensity every single day, my distance vision was getting worse, and I knew enough to know that if this was a brain tumor, then days could make or break the treatment of it.  And, I had accepted the possibility that I might die.  But if that was the hand I was to be dealt, I wasn’t going to go down without a fight.  First step of that fight was getting this MRI so that I could know exactly what I was dealing with.

My call with Great West went something like this:
GW Rep:  Thank you for calling the help line.  My name is (I can’t remember), how can I help you?
Me:  Hi.  My name is Heather.  My policy number is (Policy and group information).  I’m calling to find out what the hold up on my MRI is.
GW Rep:  Let me take a look….  Hmmm it seems that the request has been denied.
Me:  What do you mean “Denied?”  I need this MRI.
GW Rep:  Our doctors say that it’s not a medically necessary procedure.  Sorry.  You have to be under your doctor’s care and treatment for a month before we will okay this.
Me: (Getting rightfully pissed) Let me translate back to you what you just said – You haven’t been in enough pain for us to give a crap.
GW Rep: That’s not what I said, Ma’am.  I was just telling you the policy.  Don’t blow this out of proportion.
Me:  Out of proportion?  Look, I have a history of cancer.  They suspect that I have a brain tumor.  Exactly what WOULD you consider to be “medically necessary,”  because to anyone with common sense, this would be?
GW Rep: I understand you’re frustrated.  Insurance can be difficult.  Really, Ma’am, I feel your pain.
(At this point my ability to process logical thought began to break down)
Me:  You don’t feel a bit of my pain! I’m sitting here, facing the very real possibility that I may have a brain tumor, days ticking away when they matter for treatment, and believe me when I say that I understand this means that this 32 year old might not make it to 33.  You don’t feel my pain, lady.
GW Rep:  Ma’am, just think positive.
Me:  Is this the Tony Robbins Help Desk?!  I didn’t call for your encouragement, I called to get my MRI.  I pay over $400 a month for my insurance and I want the services that I pay for!
GW Rep:  Well, there’s nothing I can do for you at this point unless your doctor calls and argues with our doctors here.  But, Ma’am, I’m pretty sure you’re overreacting.  I’m pretty sure it’s not a brain tumor.

At this point in the conversation, my logic center went completely offline and, I’m not sure, I think I might have called her the C word, because when I started processing things again, I was talking to her supervisor, who’s first question to me was why I was being so abusive to her employee.  As I laid out the conversation with her, the only words the woman could muster were, “Well… that’s unfortunate.”

This interchange with my insurance company, painful and terrible as it was, taught me something, and if I can get a training story out of an experience, then I have to deem that a worthwhile moment in my life, obnoxious as it may have been.  When I recounted the conversation to Alan, my friends, and later, to my doctor, I realized exactly the moment when my ability to say anything constructive went out the window.

“I feel your pain.”

First Aid KitIt was the counterfeit empathy that pushed me over the edge to the point that the only thing that would sate my customer service bloodlust was getting that process approved – RIGHT THEN and RIGHT THERE.   It felt like being told I had a boo-boo, and here’s a band aid, when I clearly had a cut that needed stitches and medical attention. From the moment those words left the rep’s mouth, there was no turning back, because her poorly chosen Bill Clinton quote did nothing but cement in my mind what I had already suspected: that she and no one else there really cared and they were just playing statistics with my life.  From there, she just compounded the issue by being a moron and breaking the law (because it turns out that they can’t give “medical opinions” like, you know, being “pretty sure it isn’t a brain tumor.”), but even without those additional overages, the emotional bill was already too high for her to be able to pay it off in that conversation.
We tell our employees when they’re dealing with an upset resident that they must listen and empathize.  And it’s true.  They have to do this or the situation will never get the resident past their rage and back to constructive territory.  But, when we teach them, we say just that: “Listen and Empathize.”  Like it’s some sort of a technical skill – entering checks, patching drywall, coding bills.  Empathy is not a technical skill and neither is active listening.  These are soft skills that require you to be emotionally invested in the conversational interchange that you are participating in, and in today’s workplace, soft skills and the genuinity behind them will make or break your career.
When an upset resident calls or comes in, it is not a “fake it ’till you make it” kind of moment in your day.  If you can’t muster genuine care and concern, then perhaps a front line customer service job isn’t really for you.  Faking empathy will not ever help you deal with an angry resident.  You honestly have to give a damn about what their issue is to get them to trust you enough to let you help them or to hear any proposed compromise that you might put on the table.  Until they trust that you care, they have no reason to want to “work with you” to solve the problem, because they don’t see you as a partner, they see you as someone who they pay 1500 dollars every month to do things for them, and you’re not holding up your end of that service agreement.
And please, don’t ever tell someone that you “feel their pain,” because, in my opinion, that person should just say “Challenge Accepted!” and will then go out of their way to make sure that you actually feel something that is semi-comparable to “their pain,” one way or another.
PS – To quote the Kindergarten Cop himself, “It’s not a tumor!”  After two months of scans and treatments it has been diagnosed as a completely treatable and non-lethal condition called “transformative migraines.”  Yeah, I get a headache more often than most people, but I’ll make it to 33.  I call that a pretty awesome trade up from where we started this diagnosis at.