Difficult Conversations: Thalidomide sufferers seek empathy

Difficult Conversations: Thalidomide sufferers seek empathy

The need to manage difficult conversations was acute for the Grünenthal Group, the company who manufactured the drug Thalidomide, which was prescribed to pregnant women in the 1950s and early 1960s to avoid the effects of morning sickness. Unfortunately the drug was found to be the cause of over 10,000 deformities in babies worldwide.

On 2 September 2012, the Sunday “Herald Sun” reported that after waiting 50 years, the Grünenthal Group’s Chief Executive, Harald Stock, offered an apology to thalidomide victims. By doing so he re-ignited the victims’ concerns, and their families’, suffering, frustration and anger. Mr Stock said, in part, “We ask that you regard our long silence as a sign of the silent shock that your fate has caused us. We also apologise for the fact we have not found the way to you from person to person for almost 50 years”.

Needless to say, hearing Mr Stock ask the victims to understand Grünenthal’s ‘silent shock’ only caused further emotional stress to Wendy Rowe, whose daughter Lynette was born without arms and legs because of Thalidomide. As Ms Rowe said, “Shock is having your precious child born without arms and legs. It’s accepting that your child is not going to have that life that you wanted for her. Our family couldn’t have gone into silent shock. We had to get up and face each day and every day and cope with the incredible damage that Grünenthal had done to Lynne and our family”.

On reflection, Grünenthal Chief Executive Harald Stock would have done well to remember the difference between impact and intention. The only meaning and impact his words could possibly have had were those Wendy Rowe placed on them. After waiting 50 years for an apology and compensation it would appear that Mr Stock’s words did little to ease the hurt, frustration and anger for over 10,000 Thalidomide sufferers and their families.

The need to manage conversations that involve different viewpoints is an everyday occurrence. Without the skills to manage differences over justice, strategy, scarce resources, cultures and future risks, the potential to prolong suffering, permanently damage relationships, and negatively impact on business performance, rises dramatically.

Self-coaching tips

  • Expect emotional responses. The only meaning your message has is the interpretation the other person puts on it
  • Demonstrate behaviours that model cooperation, including being prepared to divulge information, suspend judgement and leverage the common ground to build rapport
  • Avoid premature problem solving to understand what success looks like to the other side, and the intrinsic rewards they gain
  • To build predictability, agree upfront on how the discussions will be managed, and protect your interests by explaining to the other party that your desire to understand and show empathy does not signal agreement


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