“They need to be able to pass the tissue test.”

By Leslie Quintanar

Years ago, one of the regional sales and marketing directors overseeing our community said something I’ve never forgotten. We were interviewing sales and marketing candidates and he said:

“They need to be able to pass the tissue test.”

He explained that while we evaluate the other skills they possess, it’s imperative that they have the ability to embrace the fact that many of the families who come through our doors are in emotional turmoil. They are watching mom or dad deteriorate physically and mentally, feeling guilty about not being able to care for them any longer, and a host of other overwhelming emotions. Sometimes that combination presents itself with a brusque attitude, critical assessments, and oftentimes tears. 

Empathy Required

Anyone who has worked in senior living any length of time realizes this truth. Therefore when you are screening those candidates who want to take their place in your community as the first connection those prospects encounter, you had better ensure that they have a hearty dose of empathy. Why? Because empathy makes the difference between a robotic (no matter how thorough) and genuine experience.

Think about it for a minute; I’m sure you can all remember times you’ve been “pitched” some kind of product and although it was detailed and comprehensive, you felt that there was a lack of passion and a true belief in what they were selling. It’s somewhat off-putting. Now transpose that same experience into a senior living community. Who wants to move their loved one into a place where the salesperson cannot even show a sliver of emotion?

Tears Welcome

Now, I’m not suggesting that all sales people and community leaders break down and weep with families, but what I am proposing is that at appropriate times it is more than acceptable, even desirable, to show your emotions. There is something remarkable that happens when you enter into the reality of those families experiences, and it creates a connection that you really cannot reproduce any other way.

Families want to know that they aren’t contemplating moving their loved one in a place where everyone is very skilled, but lacking any personal touch. After all, this community will become their home; and who associates home with a mechanical, apathetic days? I don’t think many of us would willingly choose that as a viable option. 

An Emotional Business Plan

It doesn’t take much digging to find business articles that tout the ability to restrain your emotions in a variety of interactions. Typically emotional displays are not welcomed in business, and can be seen as a sign of weakness and instability. But senior living isn’t a typical business. On any given day you may interact with a resident who is dying, send someone out 911 for a fall, and deal with a family member in deep denial of their loved ones advancing dementia.

And that’s often a normal day.

So, if we are honest, most days are riddled with emotional events of one type or another. And while leaders need to learn to appropriately deal with those various emotional interactions, there are times when it’s okay to let our guard down and let those we serve see that we are invested in their well-being.

I once had a family member tell me, “I knew that you really cared about my mom when I was talking with you about her and you started to cry.” We had been discussing her mom’s move from assisted living to memory care and it was painful for her to think of her mom, once so vibrant and sharp, as someone who couldn’t remember what she ate for breakfast. It was a good lesson to me that it’s okay at times to allow those loved ones to see just how much we really care. Sometimes that ability weep with those who weep is much more powerful than any words we could ever utter. 

Bring on the Tissues 

Just to reiterate, I am in no way proposing that we lead the charge in senior living with a bunch of weeping, slobbering leaders. What I am suggesting is that we all want to feel connected to others. We all want to know that others understand our feelings and struggles. Finally, we all want to know that there are people out there who want to come alongside us and hold our arms up as we persevere in our personal battles. If we as leaders in the senior industry can find ways to do that I am certain that we will change even more lives because people will recognize not only expertise but heart and that makes all the difference. 

So don’t be afraid to pull out those tissues.