Why training in conflict mediation should be essential in health profession education
By Sanda S.
August 21, 2023
“I would never be able to do your job!” is the main comment I get when people hear about my job. My job title is “patient concerns consultant,” which means dealing with complaints from patients and families all day, every day. I’ve been in this position for the last seven years (yes, seven), handling thousands of complaints. The general reaction of those who hear about this could be considered a compliment. But it’s also proof of a bitter reality: many of us are not equipped to deal with conflict at work.
Here is what I have learned so far from this difficult but rewarding position.
It’s not about what job you do but what the job does to you
I used to think in terms of five-year goals, career progression and objective accomplishments (degrees, certificates, etc). I realized that although all of these are useful and valid, I have grown the most while doing the opposite: being fully present with the good and the bad, finding meaning in the uneventful, and deconstructing my ego. Dealing with complaints every day was not something I (or anyone) would actively pursue. It took years for me to really appreciate the constant opportunity this position gives me: the chance to evaluate my own biases, avoid judgments and be kinder! I would encourage anyone to explore more intuitively their path and go with the flow in their own career. Ask yourself, “What does this job show me? What does it teach me? How does it make me better?”
There is no conflict resolution; there is only conflict transformation
This statement comes from my own work experience. Conflict is like a moody plant that follows its own course. If fertilized, it can overgrow (i.e., escalate); it can also wither and slowly die, only to be food for the future. (Food for more complaints? Or food for more hope?) I have not yet heard from any complainant, “This is now resolved.” Instead, I have heard, “This is better than nothing” or “This is okay for now.” This shows that the process is not as linear as we make it to be and that health-care quality is about both subjective perception and objective data. As Einstein said, “Not everything that matters can be measured” (and not everything that can be measured matters!).
To transform conflict, be aware of the “I” in conflict
Our first reaction when someone is angry, voices a negative opinion, or asks “to talk to the manager” is to become defensive and take it personally. But what if you do the opposite? I’ve done both in my job, and I can tell you with certainty that taking the “I” out of the equation really helps! It’s about how you create space for someone to voice their opinion, no matter how out of bounds that is, without judgment, being fully present but not involved (as opposed to being “checked out”). It’s about providing solid ground and stability to a volatile situation. If I am not grounded, it will not help, so I learned to first tune in to what the complainant has to say. Afterwards, if possible, resist the urge to have a difficult conversation; instead, postpone to regain composure. (And yes, this can be done everywhere — not only in an office but on the unit floor too.)
The number one reason why people complain is communication
This is a fact, reinforced by an emerging body of research on patient complaint data. The problem is that we either believe that we are communication experts or the opposite: we discount this issue, thinking that it is all “fluff.” After years of nursing and postgraduate training, I have not had a course or a module that taught me some practical skills on how to deal with conflict. And this shows. The wide-eyed nurse starting her shift in a busy emergency department will most likely lose the spark after many encounters with aggression, may become disenchanted or, even worse, may become a constant source for complaints.
I have learned how to approach conflict from self-study and real-life working experience, but I believe we can all do better. Today, for a nurse, regardless of the specialty and location, knowing how to respond and de-escalate conflict is an essential skill. I strongly believe that practical conflict training for health-care professionals is not only beneficial but a must in 2023.
My current job was extremely difficult at first. It still is, and the beauty of it is that it offers different angles, different challenges, every day. Do I have tough days? Yes. Am I always able to remember my own words? No. But I am learning every day to be more mindful and aware of my own role in mediating conflict.
And I have found that by dropping the “I” from conflict, an unexpected thing happens: someone finds grounded space, and there is no “me” or “them.” There is only “we.”
Sanda S., RN, MScHQ, worked as a nurse in several practice settings before her current role as a patient concerns consultant in Alberta. Read more about her work and about how you can become a better conflict mediator by visiting www.peaceandpatient.com.