Common Courtesy and Who Owes What?

Hysterical brunette talking with two telephone receiversIt was a desperate plea from a young women (we’ll call her Bethany) with a real problem:

Bethany had been through several years of infusion treatment for services rendered outside of her network, beginning while she was still a teenager. Her insurance company covered the service (because it wasn’t available at all within her network). So insurance had paid Bethany’s mother for each claim, and then her mother paid the infusion provider. The problem was that, over the years, the mother had paid less than the total amount due – and then she passed away. The infusion company got in touch with Bethany and insisted on a lump sum payment for the balance of well over $100,000, payable within five days or they would take her to court.

Desperate (Who wouldn’t be? Could you come up with an unexpected $100,000+ within five days?) Bethany began trying to find help. She found a few advocates online and phoned them. One advocate recommended Bethany get in touch with me. Of course, I don’t do advocacy work myself, so the only recommendation I could make was that Bethany connect with additional advocates through the AdvoConnection Directory…. I didn’t hear anything more until…..

A few days later, I heard from one of our members who Bethany ultimately contacted – the one who took Bethany’s case, negotiated it and got it straightened out for her. But the advocate was stunned and frustrated by something Bethany told her, so she forwarded that frustration on to me.

That is….

At least one of the advocates Bethany had contacted discussed the situation with her, wasn’t sure if she could help, so she told Bethany she would think about it and call her back. Bethany waited, even in her desperation, but that call never came. By the time she got a hold of the advocate who did help her, Bethany was “nearly hysterical” I am told, because she was waiting for that return phone call.

So a problem that was difficult to begin with was made worse because someone didn’t bother following through. I can only imagine Bethany so desperate and scared, stuck in a position she had no role in creating, and not particularly healthy to begin with (years of infusions suggest a chronic illness) – having an expectation of a return phone call — the desperation would take on a life of its own.

I cannot fathom why that advocate did not call Bethany back. It would seem to be nothing more than a common courtesy. You make a promise – you stick to it. Even if you can’t help, you call. No excuses.

But it actually begs a bigger question. That is, what DO you owe these strangers who reach out to you? People call with all kinds of problems that you can’t or don’t want to deal with… do you have an obligation to do something or say something or Are you required to respond?

The answer is this: you have no obligation whatsoever to provide anyone with services or to answer anyone’s questions. You can listen politely, then decline politely.

But you DO have an obligation to follow through on any promises you make. If you promise to try to find someone who can help, or if you tell the person you’ll send them a link or provide them with a phone number or connect them with another advocate, or even just to call them back… whatever it is… You DO owe them the obligation you have created.

So that’s the key – don’t make a promise you can’t or won’t keep.

Further, you must be very clear – VERY clear about what that person can expect. No is no. “I’m sorry, I just can’t help you. This isn’t work I can handle” – is very clear. No promises. Clear and honest.

Less clear is “Let me think about it and I’ll call you back if I can help.” Don’t go there!!? Someone who is scared and desperate (and possibly not well) won’t hear that little two-letter word “IF.” They will hang on hope – hope you may have unintentionally offered. Never use an IF!

Better to be frank and forthright, than to leave a question.

Of course, there are those rare occasions when a caller or emailer won’t take no for an answer. I’ve had that through email when I’ve been told “YOU OWE ME!” – but of course, I don’t. I’ve been cursed at, told to go to h*ll, and have even been threatened with being sued! But I’m a volunteer. I have no clients. Patients don’t pay me for advice so I don’t owe any patient anything at all. If I can help them, I will. But I won’t accept abuse (which is what all of that kind of craziness is)…

…and you never have to accept abuse either.

Reviewing Bethany’s situation – her requests were far from abuse. She should not have had to deal with more stress created by an advocate – one of us! – someone who is expected to make her life better, or at least not make it any worse or more difficult.

In all cases, if there is a question, ask yourself – how would I want to be treated? Then proceed accordingly. Be frank and clear, and exercise your common courtesy. But above all else, don’t make promises you can’t or won’t keep, and be sure to follow through on the promises you do make.

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Share your experience or join the conversation!


1 thought on “Common Courtesy and Who Owes What?”

  1. I am aboard completely with the larger message about common courtesy and professional conduct of our advocates.

    But before judging the actions of lack of same of the advocate who purportedly did not place the promised return call, I hope the advocate who took the case and reported Bethany’s frustrations attempted to corroborate Bethany’s allegations directly with that advocate.

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