Taking Action to Solve the Healthcare Conflict

November 23, 2009 by  
Filed under Newsletter


Quote of the day by William James: “Whenever you’re in conflict with someone, there is one factor that can make the difference between damaging your relationship and deepening it. That factor is attitude.”

Taking Action to Solve the Healthcare Conflict

It doesn’t matter who is the problem or who is at fault. You have to take action now to get the conflict resolved and to move forward taking care of your loved one. If you have been part of the problem, say you’re sorry. If you aren’t the problem, don’t worry about getting an apology. You don’t have time to stay angry. Your loved one needs help. The first thing you want to do is to deal with any conflicts when they first arise instead of letting them escalate. There are problem solvers throughout the hospital: The social worker, the charge nurse, the chaplain, the bioethics committee, the hospital administrator and in some places an ombudsman. These people have been trained to help facilitate the conflicts that occur in the hospital. If the conflict is happening in the doctor’s office, then you are on your own. But don’t worry, after you read the next few pages, you will be a much better problem solver yourself.

The first thing you need to do is to look at your role in the conflict. Am I making this situation better or worse? What could I do to make this situation better? Is this how I would react on a normal day? Or am I just overwhelmed, afraid, in shock or in grief and I’m having a hard time coping with this situation? Sometimes we need to take a timeout to catch our breath before we can interact with others and make any meaningful decisions. It is normal for you to feel the pressures and weight of these decisions. When any of us are in a crisis, we are not at our best. But unfortunately, you may not have the time to process what you’re going through and be able to feel like yourself again. Sometimes we have to make the decisions while we are stressed. Let people know how hard this is for you so they will understand what you are going through.

A couple of questions, you can ask yourself, may help you begin to see the situation differently. Are you making inaccurate assumptions? Sometimes we have misunderstood or not heard correctly what has been said to us. Before you get upset, make sure that you have the right information.

Are you more interested in “being right” or “getting it right”? This is a tough one. If you are determined that your way is the only way you, then you are going to have a difficult time resolving the conflicts with the healthcare team. Too often people discover that the way they thought things should go, turns out to be a mistake. I have seen this many times when the bioethics committee comes in to help with the ethical dilemma. The doctor is determined that his way is the right way and he is frustrated that the patient will not agree. Or the patient’s loved one comes in ready to do battle. Here’s what happens. As the meeting goes on, the people in the room hear the other parts of the story that they didn’t know before. Perhaps the doctor finds out that the reason the patient doesn’t want to do the surgery is because there’s no one at home to take care of them. The patient isn’t trying to be difficult, they are just feeling helpless. Or the patient’s family finds out that they have misunderstood what the doctors said about the disease or the possibilities of a cure. Once the misunderstandings have been cleared up, people calm down and new decisions can be made.

You have a lot of power in all of these interactions. You have the power to escalate or de-escalate the anger. You might say something like, “That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard.” Well you can say this but it is only going to make the other person angry and you will still be no closer to getting what your loved one needs. Instead you might want to try a different approach. You might want to say, “Let me see if I understand what you are saying.” Or, “It seems like we both are trying to achieve the same thing but in different ways. Maybe if we …” If you think there is some miscommunication going on you can say, “I heard what you said. Let me repeat it back to you to see if I have understood you correctly.”

When I tell people this idea, people will say to me, “I don’t like what they are saying and I don’t agree with what they are saying.” Of course you don’t agree. You are in a conflict. But I never said you should agree. All I said was that you should listen to their point of view. This is the secret that mediators use to solve dilemmas all the time. One of the main things a mediator does is to help the people in the room to stop and listen to each other. You are listening to figure out if there is new information you didn’t hear before, or if there is some kind of misunderstanding or if you can understand more about why the other person is so passionate about their point of view.

This is where your power is in the middle of the conflict. It is not in raising your voice or pushing for everyone to do it your way. The power comes from understanding what is really going on and hearing what the other person needs you to know about what this means to them. I will never say that to listen means to agree; not at all. It just means to listen.

When you listen to resolve a conflict, the anger and emotions will decrease and your empathy will increase. You may surprise yourself when you finally hear what they are really saying because you may find yourself feeling more compassionate and understanding of their position. You will know that the listening is working when the other person begins to calm down. The more you listen, the more you will be able to hear the deeper message behind the other person’s words. Unless you have a really bad person in the room, you need to remember that the people helping your loved one want your loved one to get better too. (If there is someone who is really bad on the healthcare team, why are you keeping them on your team? You are allowed to change who is caring for you in a hospital. You can always ask for a different doctor to be your doctor.)

You are probably not disagreeing about the goal of getting your loved one better; you are probably just disagreeing on the how. Give the person you are arguing with the benefit of the doubt and stop and listen to what they have to offer. You may like what you hear. (I have seen in many bioethics meetings that people will completely change their minds and agree with the other side once they understand what is really going on.)

You won’t be able to solve the problem until you understand the interests behind the position. What does this mean? It means that what the person is saying he wants is only part of the issue. The trick is to figure out what the demand really represents. Let me give you an example. The loved one is demanding that the patient get CPR. The doctor wants the patient to be made a DNR (Do Not Resuscitate). Now there is a conflict.

If I was helping these two to solve their conflict, I would first listen to try to figure out why it is so important to them to have their way. I would ask the patient’s loved one, “Why it is so important to have the patient get CPR?” They may tell me that they are desperate for the person to recover so they can ask for forgiveness. They haven’t been a good son and they want to say I’m sorry. Or they might say that it is against the patient’s religion to be a DNR. Or they might tell me that the patient said he would want CPR and they are trying to honor his wishes.

Do you begin to see now why what they want matters? If I can figure out why they want ____, then I can figure out how to help them. (And I figure this out by listening.) The same thing goes for the doctor. Why does the doctor want the patient to be DNR? Well perhaps the patient is close to dying and the doctor knows CPR won’t work. Or the doctor doesn’t want to prolong the suffering of the patient. Or the doctor doesn’t want to lose the business. Again, do you see why the why matters?

This is the power of listening. You can discover what is really going on behind the person’s demands and begin to figure out a way to solve it together. When you are listening, focus on figuring out what you have in common. Are you both trying to get the patient better? Are you both trying to respect the patient’s wishes? Anything you can find in common will become a starting place for problem solving.

I would like to give you a couple of quick tips to help you problem solve. The first is to separate the person from the problem. How do we do this? In these situations, it becomes a conflict between “my way” and “your way”. And we just keep battling until either one of us wins or we both get more frustrated. This doesn’t do the patient any good and it wastes our time. Let me give you an example. The patient comes in and he hasn’t been taking his medication. Usually the doctor would say, “Why haven’t you been taking your medication?” And what the doctor really means is, “Why are you being a problem?” This approach rarely works. So, instead you might want to say to the patient, “How are you and I going to solve the problem of the medicine getting into you?” The problem becomes the third person in the room. You have separated the person from the problem. Now the patient isn’t the problem, the problem is the problem. This takes the pressure off the situation and the two of you can begin to brainstorm to figure out a workable solution.

One quick note before you start brainstorming, make sure you remember to understand what the real issue is before you start. It is a waste of your time to work on solving the wrong problem. Is the patient not taking his medicine because he can’t afford it? Is he not taking his medicine because he doesn’t like the way it makes him feel? Or is he not able to cut the pill in half or open the medicine bottle? These are just a few examples of the many reasons a patient might not be taking the medications. Figure out what the real issue is and you’ll be able to solve the problem together.

The second tip is to use brainstorming to come up with more options. Brainstorming is when everyone comes up with new ideas on how to solve the problem. One technique which mediators use is to make sure the people in the conflict come up with at least three alternatives. This begins to break the conflict right away. It is no longer my way versus your way. As you begin, you can start with my way, your way or do nothing then work from there. You will find that the more options you can think of, the more likely you will be able to find a solution that people can live with. As you continue to brainstorm, you might realize that you could do a little bit of what you want and a little bit of what they want. Or you could throw out both of your plans and start again. Not only does brainstorming create a safe place to come up with new options but because you two are doing it together, it will change the experience from a combative process into a collaborative process.

Another you might want to do is to take a “time-out”. Not only does it help people calm down but in it also allows people to think about what has been discussed and to process what they have learned about the situation. We have all heard the phrase, “I have to sleep on it.” Sometimes we have to have patience and allow the other person some time to think. If you try to push someone who is not ready into making a decision, you may get a decision but it probably won’t last. The person will come back the next day and say, “I changed my mind.” I am not surprised when this happens because the person wasn’t ready to decide in the first place. Also, in some cultures, people need to go home and talk with their family or religious and community advisors. Allow people the space and time to make good decisions.

The most important part of this process is to work together. If you stay in a battle mode, you will continue to battle. When you stay in the war, the patient loses. Take responsibility for your part and make the effort to fix the situation. Be willing to say, “I was wrong. Or, I didn’t understand.” Realize that you can disagree without being disrespectful and hurtful. Figure out how you can invite this person into the problem solving process with you, especially during healthcare conflicts. You are still going to have to deal with this doctor or person on the healthcare team tomorrow. So it is better to peacefully resolve the issues than to create a battleground. Take the time to listen so you can begin to understand and empathize with the other person. You have the power to turn the conflict into an opportunity for things to get better.

Have a kind and respectful day.