Don’t Shoot the Messenger

Something I’ve noticed over the past two years or so is that people who write to me for help seem to be getting increasingly belligerent when they don’t like the information I share, or reply to their questions or requests.

Three examples:

A woman wrote to me through my Patient Empowerment site, asking me to please make a phone call to her psychiatrist to tell him that she needed a higher dose of Xanax. I replied to her to say that first, I don’t work directly with patients – I write and speak and run an organization. Further, that I would never consider phoning someone’s doctor to tell them what to do! Further, that I don’t deal with mental health issues at all – I just don’t have any sort of knowledge bank that could help me do that. I was polite, I suggested she make a list of reasons to share with her psychiatrist that might help him help her, etc. She wrote back…

calling me a few unprintable words – telling me she was already being abused by the psychiatrist and now I was abusing her, too. (Huh?)

A young woman, a former PACE member of AdvoConnection, attacked me on Twitter because she disagreed with a blog post I wrote several weeks ago. The difficult part was that she was disagreeing with something that is a fact – not my opinion or something that had two sides. Instead of learning from it, or asking questions, or showing me evidence to the contrary, she instead attacked me. Now – it will come as no surprise that I can be wrong! We all can. I would have loved to have engaged in a dialog with her on the topic. I might have learned something from her. Or maybe she would have learned something from me. But she’s not interested. (I have refunded her membership dues.)

A man wrote through the AdvoConnection site telling me to “force one of them advocates you’ve got there” to help him. “They all want to charge me money I don’t got.” I wrote back – politely – and told him that the directory was intended to provide private advocates to patients who need their help. And then I invited him to submit his request to our “Do You Need an Advocate” list. His final reply informed me that we are are all money-grubbing idiots and that if he dies, it will be my fault. (Ouch.)

I’m quite sure that those of you working as private, independent advocates, and possibly those of you who are working in other medical-helping situations are seeing the same kinds of belligerence as I am. I think most of us who are attempting to help others get better healthcare are sometimes the victims of the frustration so many patients are feeling.

So – a few things to know, and some suggestions:

It’s not difficult to understand why some of this anger is so pronounced. It’s why they call us. It’s why they need us. And it’s why they lash out at us. When we look at point-of-view, it’s easy to make that leap.

The best reaction to the anger is just that statement, “Please don’t shoot the messenger.” It’s NOT your fault (or mine) that the healthcare system is messed up. It’s not our fault that people become dependent on pain and psychiatric drugs. It’s not our fault that people can’t get the care they need and get frustrated that they have to pay for it. That’s the system we live in. Period.

The second best reaction is to be empathetic, then ask questions, because that will often diffuse the situation. Making statements can come across as antagonistic even when you don’t intend to be. “I’m so sorry to hear you had to put up with that, Mr. Haywood. Would you like me to suggest a few people you could call?”

Finally – do not, under any circumstances – accept abusive behavior. Once I received the abusive email reply from the woman who wanted me to help her increase her dose of Xanax, I just deleted it. No more response from me. When I heard from the frustrated man who wanted one of “my advocates” to help him for free, I provided the link to the “need an advocate” section on the website, then did not reply again. (He has not filled it out, by the way.)

As an independent, private health advocate, you are never under any obligation to perform any services you don’t feel you should offer. Further, you never have to accept abusive behavior. Cut it off immediately.

What this world needs is a bit more grace. When we behave professionally, and accept only politeness in return, we are working toward that graceful state.

Sadly, I think it’s going to take awhile.

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2 thoughts on “Don’t Shoot the Messenger”

  1. A favorite piece of advice given me was “Don’t try being rational with irrational people because your efforts will likely end up being futile.”

  2. Thanks for this post Trisha. Just the other day I received a call from a man who had found me from the AdvoConnection website, and I went through my prices at the beginning of the call. He told me that my prices were “fine” and “pretty much what he had expected”–so I proceeded to take down his details, as well as find out what exactly he wanted me to do for him, etc. I always do the initial assessment/consultation for free, since it is an information-exchanging process only. It takes about one hour usually. Then I send along the contract for signature, and only if they sign it and send it back along with the retainer that I require, do I then consider them a “client.” Many potential clients go through the one hour free consultation and then change their minds about signing on as clients, which is fine with me. But what was odd about this guy was that he seemed anxious to sign a contract right away, and he said again and again that he “had a lot of money” and just wanted some help. Anyway, after we had spent 45 minutes going over everything–suddenly he said: “Okay, so can you do X, Y, Z and get back to me?” I then said: “Actually, I can’t proceed until I receive the retainer I told you about.” He then said: “Well, I can’t give you a retainer. Can’t you just do the work, and then bill me after the work is done?” I said: “No, I am sorry, but I don’t operate that way.” At which point he called me a few ugly names (that I also cannot reprint here!) and hung up on me. I felt a bit frazled after that–even a little shaky. But I realized quickly that it was nothing personal. People who need help are already hurting. I do find it odd that so many people in this world expect to get something for nothing–people seem to want free services. I actually already have provided, and plan to continue to provide in the future, pro-bono services to people who really need my help and who really cannot afford to pay me (on a case-by-case determination) but after the way that man spoke to me, I would NOT have even taken him on as a paying client, let alone as a pro-bono client! I agree with Trisha–this world needs a little bit more grace.

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