Accident-al Conversations: How Compassion Can Change Everything

car accident

On Monday afternoon at 1:20 pm, driving back to my office from a workshop in Truro, I was rear-ended at a stop light. (It’s important to say here that I’m fine. The car is undergoing repairs until early February, but I’m perfectly fine.) The next hour contained a lot of communication with a wide variety of people. Most of it was excellent. Some of it revealed a vital missing ingredient … compassion.

How does compassion contribute to excellent communication? How can it be expressed in phone conversations?

I believe that all accidents create at least a few moments of confusion or shock. In this case, because I was fully stopped at a red light and not checking my rearview mirror, the crash, which caused my head to slam back against the headrest, completely startled me. I had no clue what was going on. (I’m very grateful that the airbags did not go off, as I’m pretty sure I would have been much more shaken.)

When I finally realized that I’d been hit, I did have the presence of mind to put on my hazard signal and pull over to the side of the road. As I did this, I could hear metal scraping against the roadway. The driver that hit me also pulled off the road behind me.

At this point, I was shaking. While it did occur to me to get out of the car, my body refused. So I did the next thing that crossed my mind; I called 911. At the very beginning of this call, I shared that this is my first car accident and that I was very shaken and shocked. Even so, the call didn’t go well. Here’s part of what occurred:

Are you injured – no. Does the other driver need an ambulance – I don’t know. Can you ask – seriously? I opened my car door and yelled the question at the elderly man behind me. He indicated no. “No, he’s doesn’t,” I said, clearly hearing my voice shake and stutter. Are there any dangerous liquids on the roadway – seriously? “I don’t know, I haven’t left the car.”

The 911 operator then began to tell me that I simply need to get out of the car and exchange information with the driver behind me; that this was not an emergency. I was completely flummoxed by this. I was pretty sure neither car was driving away from this accident. I felt my brain working to identify the next best step, and stress increasing as I began to think about finding another phone number to call. The operator didn’t help the situation as his voice betrayed the beginning of impatience. He wanted to clear his line, which I understood, but I was lost in the moment and needed him to BE with me, help me. He could have slowed down and said with warmth, “This is not a 911 emergency and I do need to clear my line but tell me what I can do to best help you at this moment.”

Fortunately, Officers Andrew Beeler and Ron Chaulk drove by, flashing all their lights, and proceeded to provide amazing support. I quickly hung up on 911.

Both these officers understood compassion. Their gentleness, even tenderness, allowed me to transition from confusion and shock back into myself – a woman who gets things done. They helped me confirm that I was indeed fine. They requested that I not leave the car because oil was leaking from the other vehicle. They called the fire department. The firefighters were also amazing, sharing their compassion easily and providing advice on possible sore muscles and headaches that might occur later in the day.

The officers informed me, with regret, that I couldn’t drive my car anywhere as the rear bumper was mostly on the ground. A tow truck was needed. This was something I knew how to handle, I thought to myself. I reached into my wallet for my CAA card and dialed. Again, I started the conversation by sharing the circumstances and that I was a bit shaken. There was a moment of quick concern from the CAA agent and then it is all down to business, following the necessary steps. One of these steps was to ask me, “Where are you having the car towed?” My brain was mush; I had no idea. I shared this with her and her voice hardened, “I can’t send the tow truck unless I know where the car’s going.”

On the phone, compassion is shared by words and, perhaps more importantly, by tone of voice. Of course, it makes sense that I should know where the tow truck will take my car, but perhaps she could have said, “We do need to know where the car is going to go. How can I help? Do you want to call us back with that information?”

I quickly gave her the name of our long-standing garage in Dartmouth and we disconnected our call. In the end, this wasted everyone’s time because the police called A-1 Towing and Recovery and Peter Merritt arrived very quickly. When I gave him the name of my garage, he knew they didn’t do bodywork. With compassion clearly visible, Peter got on his phone, called CAA and cancelled my request. Then he took the time to explain all the essential steps for insurance, helped me clear my car of necessary items, and towed it away. I am so grateful to him.

Officers Beeler and Chaulk maintained their compassion throughout, even driving me to my office once the scene was all cleared away. Their actions are to be admired and commended.

Once back in my office I was able to focus on the next steps, the first being to call the insurance company. I reached Paul at Travelers and he was lovely. Yes, he had a long list of questions to ask me, but he remained present and compassionate to my situation throughout the call. His tone of voice was warm, his pace was easy for me to manage, and he constantly provided me with valuable information on the next steps and what to expect.

While we were on the phone, he sent a request to Enterprise, telling me I’d likely hear from them in the next 10 to 15 minutes. Instead, as soon as I disconnected from Paul, my phone rang. It was Margaret Arsenault at Enterprise ready to serve. This astonished me. Within 25 minutes my car rental was organized, Rachel Leyte had picked me up at my office, and I was driving home, still shaken but incredibly confident that all was well.

By generously sharing their compassion and knowledge, a team of professionals took a nasty situation and made it easy to navigate. These were all people doing the jobs they do every day. My story is one of hundreds for them, but they treated me as the only one … and one they cared about. This made all the difference.

P.S.  In Halifax, for non-emergency accidents that need an officer on the scene, call one of these numbers: 902-490-5020 or 902-490-7252. If a police officer is not required on the scene, call this number to report the accident: 902-490-5016 or report online. Halifax lawyers McKiggan Hebert have published a five-step process for car accidents.




28 thoughts on “Accident-al Conversations: How Compassion Can Change Everything”

  1. So glad you are OK, Mary Jane. An unsettling situation which you have written about eloquently. We need more compassion, and to be more compassionate. Thank you.

    • Thanks, Skana. Yes, we do need to be more compassionate. I think it isn’t easy when we are stressed ourselves. I have no idea how difficult it is to be a 911 operator, or take CAA calls all day. Perhaps the challenge of those jobs make it more of a challenge.

  2. Mary Jane, what an experience… I know exactly how it is, so I could feel your entire story. The most important is that it was just materialistic damage with some stress, nothing else. You will probably keep thinking about it for some time, especially when you have to deal with the consequences, but I hope that passes soon. Treat yourself with more relaxing activities than usual.
    Hopefully, your story will help someone who reads it to be more compassionate if someone else calls them at a stressful situation.
    Be well,

    • Thanks, Oleg. It sounds like you’ve been through a car accident yourself. I’ve definitely had to slow down a bit the past few days and I’m not perfectly comfortable driving the rental car, but that will pass.

  3. So glad you are OK and had the help that you needed. I agree that compassion and tone can certainly be a help or hindrance in a high-stress situation. I’ve experienced an accident in 2008 which rendered me helpless and took me years to recover both physically and emotionally. Since my accident experience, I took the mental health first aid course and have been witness to a few accidents where I was first on the scene. This training helped me assess, calm and assist those involved with compassion and information. Thank you for sharing your experience!

    • Thanks, Roberta, for sharing your story. I wasn’t even aware that there was a mental health first aid course. It would provide amazing information and skills I’m sure. And how wonderful of you to translate your own experience into helping others consistently. I’m sure the benefit from your experience and training.

  4. Great insight Mary. I will be sharing with our team. Glad you are ok. Reminds me of how lucky we are as in a moment all our gifts can be taken away.

    • Oh, Jeff, this is wonderful that you will share this with your team. I think we all can get so busy and so focused on achieving necessary results that we bypass the compassion part. And yes, lucky and blessed that this was not a more serious situation.

  5. So glad you are okay, and love how you use this experience to talk about compassion during telephone conversation. This was a good read, despite the accident. Thanks for sharing!

    • Thank you, Paul. I think my New Year’s Resolution is working … to “be” in the moment I’m in. Throughout the experience I was able to be completely aware of my feelings and reactions and how other people’s word and actions impacted me. The compassion aspect was so vital to my quick recovery. And I’m so very pleased that you enjoyed reading it!

  6. Very glad you’re feeling OK Mary Jane. Thanks very much for sharing your experience in such detail – lots of good lessons here and I appreciate your setting them out so clearly. One of the aspects of such events that can easily get overlooked is what happens to our brain (very soft tissue) when its protective shell (skull) gets moved around and stopped very quickly. While exterior bruising or skin scratches might give us some clues, we usually don’t see obvious signs of potential brain trauma. You recounted some of the symptoms – feeling shocked, shaken, stressed, and so on. Depending on the level of trauma, the brain could experience bruising or other injuries. In addition, we don’t have to lose consciousness to experience a concussion, and some symptoms can take hours or days to show up. And, as with injuries to other parts of our body, we may need to take a break from our regular activities to help our brain to recover more quickly and more completely. Short story – it’s always worth getting that aspect of our health checked out when we’ve been bounced around some. Thanks so much again, Mary Jane.

  7. I’m so glad you’re OK Mary Jane. I’m sorry you had to go through all this stress, but leave it to you to make lemonade out of lemons by sharing this experience with us. Like Jeff Doyle, I’ll also be sharing this with my team.

    Your story is a great reminder to put ourselves in others’ shoes. At Home Instead we are working with families that often don’t call looking for help until they are in crisis. It is one thing to express compassion at the beginning of the call, but as the story unfolds, we must remember that patient, active listening is also an act of compassion. Tuning out everything that’s going on around us allows us to truly understand what the caller is going through so we can provide help through common sense suggestions.

    As always, Mary Jane, you are an inspiration!

    • Jeanie … thanks so much for this comment. What a wonderful statement “patient, active listening is also an act of compassion”. This is so true and easily forgotten or neglected, both at work and in our personal relationships. I appreciate that you have shared this with everyone.

  8. I am so very glad it was not worse Mary Jane, but do bear in mind Jim Muckle’s warning that your brain may have been physically shocked as well. Get as much rest as you can and be kind and compassionate to yourself. Your story provides wonderful learning for all of us, particularly for anyone who might ever be a first responder. There was such a clear difference between the compassionate responses you received compared to the more impatient ones.

    Thank you for writing this very important story.

    • Thanks, Eileen. This was all a great lesson for me as well. We really have to remember that everyone comes to us with a back story and true communication happens when we take that into consideration.

  9. Mary Jane, I am so glad and relieved to know that you are ok. It’s scary how sudden an accident can happen. I would have felt the same as you, shaken and in uncharted territory. I am glad that most of your interactions, while dealing with this unfortunate situation, were with people who had the empathy and compassion to help you through it. Thank you for sharing your story, and for sharing the ‘5 step’ info as well. Stay well! Hugs!

  10. Wow Mary Jane! That was a shocker. Glad to hear you are OK and thanks for the information in your story. I liked that you named the places you called and people involved and I hope they read your blog to see it. I was in a head-on accident when a car ran a red light. The saying, ” I didn’t know what hit me” flashed through my mind as I tried to figure out what did happen. It seemed that within a minute or two the ambulance was at the scene and I heard my name being mentioned as the Paramedic opened my door. I was in shock, but I didn’t realize it , but he knew me and said “You’re not yourself, we’re going to the hospital to have you checked out”. Fortunately I wasn’t seriously injured, I worn the marks of the seatbelt for the next 6 weeks and had treatments for my shoulder injury. The van was a write off and here’s the kicker: the insurance deemed me to be at fault as I was making a left hand turn. Who knew??? Oh yes ,there were many cars at the traffic light who witnessed the accident, however, that didn’t matter. Beware making a left hand turn! I believe with each experience in life comes a lesson and that is what I learned from my accident.

    • Thanks, Frieda, for sharing your story. I’m so sorry this happened to you. I must have been hard to recover from this accident even beyond your injuries. So good that we are open to learning from all of life’s experiences.

  11. So glad to hear that you’re OK. … sorry to hear that you were met with impatience on the way and grateful that all the right people surrounded you in the end.
    I’ve experienced that feeling of not knowing anymore what to do when in an accident. It doesn’t take much to shake us up and turn our world upside down. And yes, it is one for your next book. (smile)
    Take good care, Jacqueline

  12. After knowing you were safe and sound, my next thought is that I would have NO IDEA who to call! Thank you for mentioning this, so we can all be more prepared!!

    • Thanks for mentioning this, Natasha. During the call with 911 I ended up feeling like I should know the other number, yet very few of us to. The other numbers are now in my phone. Of course for you, the numbers will be different but good for all of us to look them up and have them handy. There’s not predicting when they’ll be useful.


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