Dorothy Armstrong's thoughts on apology generated a real buzz at our recent Glasgow event. We're delighted that she's agreed to write this blog.
‘We are all human – we can all make mistakes.’
This quote is from a man whose son died. He brought his complaint to the Ombudsman, he said, to ensure that he was listened to, lessons were learned and to receive an apology.
In my role as Professional Adviser to the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman (SPSO), I hear first hand from patients, relatives and carers about negative experiences of healthcare. The most common emotion expressed is of vulnerability, helplessness and humiliation.
When I read the stories shared on Patient Opinion, the themes are very similar to our experience at the SPSO. We see poor communication, behaviour and attitude as the most significant factors in the complaints we receive. In many cases, people feel that they have not been listened to. They feel patronised and powerless. If only staff involved in a mistake or wrong doing, had been honest and open and provided an apology at the time, they would not have continued to complain.
‘An apology is the superglue of life. It can repair just about anything.’
New South Wales Ombudsman, (2009).
As children, we are programmed to say sorry for our mistakes, but, in our working lives as adults, saying sorry is a real challenge. When used well in the NHS setting, an apology can be both very powerful for the patient and empowering for staff.
Sorry made easy - The 3 R’s
You can use this tool at work and at home. I’ve found it particularly effective with my teenage children – take a deep breath and try it too!
It is important to recognise that something has gone wrong by acknowledging the wrong doing, even if you are not at fault. Saying sorry, in a meaningful and sincere manner, is crucial. Often this first step is enough to de-escalate the situation.
Even if you feel criticised and hurt, it’s really important to provide a reason (if there is one) for the mistake, but to avoid being defensive. Make sure you are clear that the wrong doing was not intentional or personal, so try to keep to the facts. It can help to put yourself in the complainant’s shoes and step back from the situation. Stay objective.
Try to resolve the mistake there and then, if you can. Ask the complainant what they would like to happen and take responsibility to investigate, if required, and to provide feedback to them as soon as is practicable. Encourage colleagues to be proactive too.
Dr Dorothy Armstrong is Professional Adviser to the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman.
The SPSO’s Guidance on Apology sets out what an apology is and what you can do to make it meaningful.