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.