Clear is Kind

I read a lot of Brene Brown’s work. Her book, The Gifts of Imperfection, made a huge impact on me and I’ve been a fan of hers ever since it came out in 2010. I’ve started reading her most recent work, Dare to Lead, and in it, she talks about how being clear is kind.

It made me think back to when I was working in organ donation and transplantation. I was not on the recipient side, where the person who has been sick for so long finally gets that life-saving transplant. I was on the donor side, where a family who has just suffered a sudden tragedy is asked to make the ultimate selfless decision and donate their loved one’s organs. 

Since most Americans hate to think of death, we tend to use phrases like ‘passed on,’ ‘is no longer with us,’ or ‘is in a better place.’ They told us on day one of orientation NOT to use euphemisms. Say ‘dead’ or ‘died.’ It may be uncomfortable for you as the bearer of bad news, but it’s the kindest thing you can do. Families will appreciate it.

I said it a lot. I got used to saying it and I got used to hearing it.

Fast-forward a few years to when my husband and I were throwing a party at my house around the 4th of July. All of our friends and family were there, including my very best friend. It was well into the evening and many of us had had a few too many drinks, so when her phone rang and I saw all the color drain from her face, I didn’t know what had happened. 

I’d heard her say her brother’s name. I’d heard hospital. I thought I’d heard accident, but I wasn’t sure. I looked to my other friend in the room. “Wait… what happened? Is he okay?”

“He’s fine now,” she said. 

“Oh, thank God,” I answered. “Something happened but he’s okay?”

“He’s much better now. He’s out of pain.”

“Wait. Is he okay or is he not okay?” I struggled to read her face and make some sense of the situation. My friend had run out of the room crying and saying she had to get to the hospital, but my other friend was calmly telling me he was better. I had no idea what to think and those moments of uncertainty were horrible.

Finally, my husband who thankfully doesn’t drink, said, “He died, Kate. We have to get her to the hospital so she can be with the rest of her family. Let’s go. I’m driving.”

And at that moment, I understood. As horrible and unthinkable as that news was, I was almost relieved to know what we were dealing with. The next few days were a terrible blur for all of us, but I kept going back to those first moments when everything was so confusing.

I suppose it’s easier to deal with being mad at the one being unclear than it is to deal with your feelings about a friend dying. But when you’re faced with a sudden, unexpected, and tragic loss, what you need is information. Clarity. 

I know when Brene Brown says “clear is kind” she’s talking about instructions, feedback, expectations, generally between co-workers or bosses and employees. But it’s also true in painful situations like death. While we may want to soften the blow and use those phrases we think are helpful, it really only makes things worse. 

When I’m talking to an angry patient and trying to do some service recovery, the very best thing I can do besides apologize is be very clear about what happened and what we’re going to do about it. Patients want answers and as uncomfortable as it can be for me, it doesn’t pay to use fluffy language to try and soften things up.

Clear is kind. 

Author: Kate Kalthoff

It's simple: leave people, places, and things better than I found them. For more than 20 years, Katherine Kalthoff has been working to improve the way healthcare organizations connect with the people they serve. She began her career at Gift of Hope, the organ procurement organization for Illinois, approaching families and securing their consent to donate a loved one’s organs for transplant. Through compassionate, empathetic listening, Kate led the Family Services team to one of the highest consent rates in the country. From there, Kate went to Advocate Health Care, Illinois’s largest healthcare system, as a Physician Relations and Business Development Manager, improving physician satisfaction and strengthening the relationships of both the employed and independent physicians with the system as a whole. Just prior to joining Northwest Community Healthcare as the Patient Experience Officer, Kate was the first Manager of Patient Experience at DuPage Medical Group where she built a platform of organization-wide service excellence through her inspiring brand of education, training, and one-on-one coaching. A much sought-after speaker and trainer, Kate has a very simple approach to her work: leave people, places and things better than you found them.

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