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Empathy vs. Apology

“Empathy is appropriate 100% of the time, while apology is appropriate only an investigation has proven a mistake.”

Sorry is an important word, but it can mean different things.    We need to re-teach doctors and nurses how to say sorry, and how to say it in the appropriate context without prematurely admitting fault.   We need to teach the difference between empathy and apology!   Empathy – sorry this happened – is appropriate 100% of the time post-event, whereas apology – sorry we made this mistake – is appropriate only after an investigation has proven a mistake.  In fact, teaching how to empathize without prematurely admitting fault is one of the chief themes of Sorry Works! PresentationsTraining Seminars, and Online Disclosure Learning Tools. For too long doctors, nurses, and other clinicians have been told never to say the word “sorry”, lest you buy the hospital, practice, or insurance company a lawsuit.  Yet, we know absence of sorry if one of the chief drivers of medical malpractice litigation.  Seasoned med-mal litigators say patients and families often mention it during depositions: “Nobody ever said sorry.” 

Below is an example of how we teach empathy:

“Today, we are going to learn the difference between empathy and apology. If I said to Mary here, “I’m sorry you spilled coffee on your lap,” most people—not just medical professionals—would say I just apologized to Mary. After all, I used the word sorry in my statement to Mary. But I didn’t apologize—I empathized! “I’m sorry you spilled the coffee in your lap, and I feel bad you have to go home and change your outfit” is 100 percent empathy. Apology, on the other hand, would sound like this: “I’m sorry I knocked your coffee over and it has spilled on your lap; let me pay for your dry cleaning bill.” Both statements used the word sorry, but one was about feelings and staying connected (empathy), while the other was about admitting fault and making amends (apology). Yet, medical professionals in particular are petrified of sorry in any context because you’ve been told for so long never to utter it. “Don’t say you’re sorry, or you’ll buy the hospital a lawsuit” has been the traditional mantra of risk and legal professionals. Yet sorry is one thing patients and families want most post-event, and it’s not necessarily “Sorry we screwed up” but “Sorry this happened, and we still care about you.” Empathy is absolutely critical to staying connected with patients and families after an event. If you stay connected, your chances of litigation are dramatically reduced.”

To teach your staff these important lessons about Empathy vs. Apology, considering purchasing the Little Book of Empathy and also scheduling a Sorry Works! presentation.

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