Don't debate--communicate!


Learn to take the sting out of verbal darts and head off conflicts with co-workers.

Passion pits. That's the nickname Dennis Cloud, DVM, a Firstline Editorial Advisory Board member, lovingly calls veterinary practices. He's not referring to office romance-he's complimenting those who devote their lives to caring for animals. "People work in veterinary practices because they truly love what they do. They really care about their jobs," says Dr. Cloud, who owns several practices in the St. Louis area.

But this devotion can sometimes spark tempers when the front desk backs up and confusion reigns. Sometimes those flare-ups are simply a reaction to a stressful moment. And sometimes they're a symptom of team members' underlying frustrations.

Either way, good communication is vital to prevent a clash of tempers and defuse conflicts. Let's look at how to successfully manage five explosive behaviors.


Your team may provide the best patient care and client service, but at some point you'll face an unhappy client. Then team members' tempers can flare, too.

Communication breakdowns are often at the root of conflicts between team members and clients. And it's easy to transfer the stress from this situation and point fingers about what went wrong. So create a policy for handling unhappy clients so everyone feels empowered to respond. "We train our team members to recognize the symptoms of a potential unhappy client, such as when an invoice totals more than the estimate or when a client waits a long time," says Florence Sanford, CVPM, the practice manager at Nassau Veterinary Clinic in Nassau, N.Y. "We encourage team members to take the initiative, and they're creative in making clients happy. For example, they've performed free baths, delivered medications to clients' homes, and offered to replace lost items of boarded pets. They've never given away too much, but they've always listened and clients leave happy."

It's OK to investigate where the lapse in communication occurred once you resolve the situation with the client. But avoid the blame game. Instead, ask questions. Was the client angry because he didn't plan for the bill? Or was he upset because the appointment took longer than expected?

If the problem seems chronic, plan team training activities to head off these frustrating situations. You might ask the back office team to practice explaining procedures and their costs with clients. And remind these team members to communicate with the reception team when unexpected delays occur, like emergencies. Most clients won't mind waiting if they know you're treating a puppy that was hit by a car. They usually only get cranky when the minutes pass and they don't know why you're late. On the other hand, if you determine the miscommunication was a rare fluke, then smile at your co-workers and let your frustration go.

Confusing co-workers for enemies

Mild annoyances can blossom into bigger problems if they aren't resolved, says Sheila Grosdidier, BS, RVT, a Firstline board member and partner at VMC Inc. in Evergreen Colo. Team members begin to think of their co-workers as enemies and the battles begin in earnest.

A warning sign: You hear phrases like, "Those people at reception," or, "Those people in the back." For example, Alexa checks in a new patient, Moonbeam. She forgets to write down Moonbeam's a boy and Trish, a technician, calls Moonbeam a girl. Moonbeam's owners are irritated. Trish is embarrassed, and she later snaps at Alexa, "Why can't you fill this form out right?"

"When these situations happen, remember it isn't personal. It isn't malicious. Usually, it's ignorance," Grosdidier says. Here, Alexa simply made a mistake. She didn't realize the pet's gender was an important detail and the mistake might reflect on Trish and the entire practice. She wasn't trying to make Trish look foolish.

Rather than encourage an "us versus them" culture between the front and back office team members, Trish could have explained to Alexa that she needs to remember to write down pets' gender because sometimes it's hard to tell by the name. Then she could explain what happened during Moonbeam's visit. The key: Avoid using language that lays blame, like, "When you ... " Instead, focus on fixing the problem: "It's helpful to note the pet's gender so we don't offend clients."

Criticizing others publicly

No one likes to be criticized, and it's worse when you criticize a colleague in front of her peers. A team member with this bad habit can put the whole team on edge, says Mary Anne Vande Linde, DVM, a consultant with Vande Linde and Associates in Atlanta.

For example, say Martha double-booked an appointment during rush hour. Denise is frustrated and says to Martha in front of the team, "You're not supposed to double-book appointments at the end of the day." Denise feels she's simply stating the obvious and that Martha should know better. But now Martha's been publicly embarrassed, and she's much more likely to be defensive and retaliate. Or she may say nothing and make a mental note to snap back in the future. So when you offer feedback, remember this simple rule: Praise in public, criticize in private.

Doubting and second-guessing

It's a pretty rotten feeling when your co-workers question your performance. For example, Monica asks Beth to run Floppy the rabbit's blood test. But before Beth can start, Bruce, a Great Dane, escapes his owner and eludes capture down the hall. Beth catches Bruce seconds before he takes a bite out of Floppy the rabbit. And as Bruce's owners lead him away, Monica returns expecting her results. "I need those results now," she says. Exasperated, Beth says, "I'm getting to it. It isn't the only thing I've got to do today."

In this case, neither person knows all the facts to relate to each other. Beth doesn't understand why Monica needs the results so quickly, and Monica doesn't know that Bruce was about to turn Floppy into a snack. Both team members will benefit if they approach each other without assumptions or accusations. And Beth can help defuse the situation by recognizing Monica's behavior isn't personal and explaining why she was delayed.

Terrorizing the team

No matter how well you communicate or how thoroughly the team is trained, there are some team members who create situations no amount of diplomacy can solve, Dr. Cloud says. "I call them the team terrorists," he says. "These are the people you hire because they've got such a great resumé. But when they join your practice, suddenly a team that's always gotten along starts quipping at each other."

Dr. Cloud describes team terrorists as people with a talent to pit team members against one another. They make comments under their breath, gossip, or disagree just to assert their influence. Typically they're subtle, but team terrorists can completely change a practice's dynamics.

"If you've noticed a sudden change in everyone's temperament, start observing. There's likely a team terrorist in your midst," Dr. Cloud says. "Unfortunately, in my experience these people don't respond well to training or counseling. And sometimes you just have to let them go."

Heather Kirkwood is a freelance writer in Overland Park, Kan. Please send questions or comments to

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