Of late there have been quite a number of social media posts and blogs on this subject. One that I read recently reminds me how even in everyday conversation, inadvertently using an inappropriate word or putting emphasis on the wrong thing, even inserting a comma in the wrong place, can change the whole meaning of something thereby prompting misinterpretation or giving offence.
One blog which commented on workplace practices, emphasised the need for the positive use of language. This piece highlighted the difference between introducing Fred as “a new employee” rather than of welcoming him and explaining that he is a “new member of the team”. This introduction of Fred is grammatically correct and essentially is factually correct. However, it could send out the wrong message both to him and his new colleagues.
Colloquial inaccuracies, however inadvertent or well-intentioned, crop up all the time. I was recently assured by a member of staff at my local London Overground station that the next train was running two minutes late when in fact the reality was that because of signal failure it was already 10 or 12 minutes late. The official thought that the train probably would arrive in two minutes but as I later discovered there were major technical problems with further considerable delays anticipated.
Scenarios such as this are all too common in daily life. They are often reflected in misleading statistical analyses and can be sensationalised in press and media reports. Even in circumstances where in truth, no harm is done, people who may be stressed, in a hurry or trying to run a business and who may be badly inconvenienced, could be very annoyed. Inferences will be drawn, complaints can follow and disputes that could so easily have been avoided may ensue.
In terms of avoidance, the obvious solution is for people to “get things right in the first place” but this is easier said than done. We are all human and in the heat of the moment or when we are stressed, we make mistakes that a complaints manager or customer services representative may have to address at a later date.
In many instances, someone such as an annoyed customer may be quite simply pacified by the offering of a simple “sorry”, a small offer of recompense and assurance that there will be no repetition. But what of more serious cases?
In this regard, for me the low water mark was a medical case that I assisted with when I was a trainee lawyer. In this case, an elderly lady very sadly but not altogether unexpectedly died on the operating table. In the aftermath a relatively junior doctor found herself embroiled in a heated discussion with the deceased’s distraught but litigiously vexatious daughter and found herself uttering something to the effect of “she was 75, what did you expect”?
Pandemonium ensued. The court action that followed was vigorously pursued by the litigant daughter’s solicitors and even though in truth there was little in the way of actual loss or damage, the health authority in question settled out of court for a disproportionately large sum of money.
In the context of a heated court case, it was very difficult for the health authority lawyers to undo or address the wrong that had been done and to satisfactorily mitigate it. The case was conducted in the full glare of the media, and litigation being what it is, took between 18 months and two years to resolve. These lawyers found themselves constrained and were wary of internal politics in their authority. They were reluctant to put an apology in writing, even in “without prejudice” correspondence because they suspected that the daughter would not respect the limitations that this legal term imposes on individual pieces of correspondence, even “lawyer to lawyer” letters.
Given what had transpired previously the health authority lawyers found it very difficult to call the daughter’s integrity into question because they thought that this would add fuel to the flames and perhaps ironically, the health authority was ultimately castigated for not offering an apology! To add insult to injury, the authority was ordered to pay the daughter’s very substantial legal costs and, because a scapegoat was needed, the junior doctor was heavily censured.
Oh what a tangled web of missed opportunities! A stressed, inexperienced, probably unsupported junior doctor without a mean bone in her body had made a very inadvertent “one-off” remark and in the context of traditional litigation, the health authority lawyers found themselves without a mechanism for putting things right. A case of justice being “seen to be done” but in truth, where justice was not done.
Either mediation or Early Dispute Resolution (EDR) could so easily have addressed this issue. Out of the public gaze and with the benefit of an appropriately drafted agreement, a clear explanation from a transparently independent mediator or facilitator about the meaning of “confidentiality” and a carefully constructed outcome agreement could have addressed the concerns that the health authority lawyers had about the daughter’s possible lack of integrity. A mediator will use effective stratagems such as reframing, empathetically reflecting back and summarising, and is able to defuse tension, assist the resolution process and help the parties to look forward rather than back.
Anecdotally, doctors that I have mentioned this case to over the years have invariably given me a resigned, very knowing nod and said something to the effect of “yes this happens all too often”. Surely, in the spirit of ensuring that justice is done and that scarce public resources are put to the very best use, this is something that medical authorities both in the UK and worldwide, need to address urgently.
Principal Director of ASM PLUS, civil/commercial, workplace, employment, family and educational mediator and trainer with a judicial/legal background. He has knowledge and expertise in dispute resolution in a wide range of areas and disciplines and mediates online.