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Make a Difference Through Listening


How can government employees avoid reacting negatively when confronted with grossly disruptive behavior? This is one of the greatest challenges faced by many employees on a daily basis. Managers at Veterans Affairs often have to deal with patient complaints or congressional inquiries related to poor customer service. While some of the Patient Advocate reports have to do with unrealistic appointment scheduling expectations, other reports seem to mention specific employees as the main source of grief.

I care deeply for my fellow veteran patients, my employees and the VA mission. I came to Veterans Affairs to make a difference. As a veteran, I have been on the receiving end of poor customer service and I can relate to some of the complaints filed at the office of the Patient Advocate. One of the many  challenges faced by leaders is how to turn a negative experience into a positive learning experience. There are instances that may defy common sense, or behavior that cannot be understood nor explained. It is very easy to react negatively when on the receiving end of abusive behavior from an angry patient or a frustrated employee.

Action versus Reaction

While walking the Surgical Clinics during one of my morning rounds, I heard an employee talking to one of our patients with a tone of voice that I found disrespectful. With a smile, I introduced myself to the patient and greeted the employee. After addressing the patient’s concerns, I invited the employee to meet with me in private. I patiently reminded the employee of my expectations and explained how that situation could have been better handled. It was challenging, but not impossible, to remain calm while the employee explained the reasons for the behavior. I have learned that whenever faced with difficult situations, it is best to listen before making a decision for best course of action.

Action requires thought, while reactions do not. Negative scenarios tend to provoke negative reactions. Arguments are a good example of negative reactions. Every human being has the ability to make a choice when faced with conflict in the workplace, but pride sometimes gets in the way of the decision-making process. It is important to listen to the message that is sometimes hidden behind angry words. The delivery of the message may be distorted with anger and the words could sometimes be harsh, but a good listener can always help the speaker relax with a calm, honest and caring demeanor.

As a leader, I choose to be different in order to make a difference in the lives of our patients and in the lives of those I lead. Long ago, during my military service, I learned that leadership is the ability to influence others to accomplish the mission by providing purpose, direction and motivation. Always treat others with respect regardless of the way that others treat you. Listen to understand, not to speak. You will be a better person for it and others will be able to see the difference that you are trying to make.

Alberto Principe is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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