Sorry Works!

Sorry Works! Blog

Making Disclosure A Reality For Healthcare Organizations 

Empathy over the Phone

Fri, Jul 13, 2012

Empathy over the Phone

At Sorry Works! we are really stressing the need to teach empathy to front-line physicians, nurses, and other staff. Staff needs to know how to say "sorry" when something goes wrong without prematurely admitting fault (because that helps nobody, patients and families included!) Empathy is the part of disclosure that must be pushed down to these folks. This is why we wrote the Empathy Booklet and have sold thousands of copies of this helpful little guide.

Add phones to your empathy training checklist for front-line staff. This is a big area where folks fall down, especially on the overnight shift.

We've heard more than our fair share of horror stories in acute and long-term care settings of bad phone calls after something goes wrong. Not only do these phone calls lack empathy, they often lack tact and basic human decency:

"Yeah, look....your father is dead. I said he is D...E...A.....D. (awkward silence while family member cries, followed by heavy breathing because the caller is busy and getting impatient). Look, it was his time...he's in a better place, you know? Look, I've got to go...let us know what you want to do with the body. And we need to know in a few hours, OK? Bye!"

This stuff really happens....and it happens because staff lack training and also because they often become de-sensitized and jaded in their jobs. Just another dead body...what's the big deal? Well, it is a BIG deal to the family.....a rare and tragic event. With good empathy training we bring docs and nurses back to the feelings they experienced as new clinicians...when death or serious injury was an eye-opening experience. We need to help them remember.

And not all phone calls will be as blunt as the example above, but a subtle lack of empathy can be just as upsetting to a family. When my brother Jim was dying in the hospital, my Mother called one evening to check on him. Mom spoke to a nurse who said Jim was not doing well. Mom inquired what could be done to help Jim, and the nurse became uncomfortable and abruptly ended the call. Not good.

We need to help folks on the phones. We need role playing in the form of practice calls, and even provide scripts. We should audit our phones too. Doing empathy over the phone can be especially tough because the caller doesn't have the benefit of facial expressions and body language. So, all the more reason for empathy training!

Final tips: Tell staff to call with good news too -- don't wait to call only when things are bad.  Phone calls when the sun is shining build a relationship, familarity, and a comfort level that can make the "bad calls" easier for both sides.  Lastly, when possible, deliver bad news in person....many of us have forgetten the value of face-to-face meetings with all of our texting, social media. etc.

For more information on empathy training, contact Sorry Works! at 618-559-8168 or e-mail


Doug Wojcieszak Founder Sorry Works! PO Box 531 Glen Carbon, IL 62034 618-559-8168