Personnel with personal problems

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From divorce to debt, everyone deals with personal issues?and you may feel you shoulder too big a burden. Use these strategies to manage tough situations when they spill into the workplace.

If you've managed a veterinary practice for long, I can almost guarantee you've had to deal with staff members who bring their personal problems to work. And you may have said to yourself, "Why can't they leave these issues at home?"

It's true, in an ideal world, people would keep their personal challenges out of the workplace. But let's get real. People do have problems from time to time. Bad things happen to everybody. And it doesn't make sense to expect staff members to work as a close-knit team and then keep their personal challenges out of the office.

Staff members bring their personal issues to work because they don't know where else to turn for help. And sharing about life that goes on beyond the walls at work helps build a strong bond that's an important part of being a team player. So don't deny the inevitable. On the other hand, it makes sense to develop some strategies for managing these situations when they come up.

Avoid these listening traps

It's often said that we're blessed with two ears and one mouth yet most of us haven't taken the hint. Listening, really listening, to someone can be one of the greatest gifts we can give. However, listening can be tough when someone's sharing a significant problem or life challenge.

Coaching in practice

After all, these conversations often involve strong emotions, such as angst, anger, or anxiety. It's easy to get caught in the drama. Or you may find that it's difficult just to field such strong emotions from a co-worker. At this point, it's easy to revert to one of these three escape mechanisms:

1. Head bobbing. The listener phases out, politely nodding, like one of those toy dogs in the back window of a car, and then excuses him- or herself as soon as possible.

2. Tossing fuel on the fire. In this scenario, you get caught feeding into the negative energy and agreeing about how bad the problem is. You might even fall into a game of one-upmanship, seeing if the original complaint can be topped with an even bigger one of your own. "Oh, you think your husband's inconsiderate? Let me tell you what mine did just last week." Before you know it, you're sucked into the drama and—who brought the chips and salsa—the pity party begins.

3. The quick fix. The third common mistake listeners make is to start offering solutions before the person has even fully expressed the problem. And often, they really aren't looking for a solution, at least not at first. They simply want someone to be sympathetic and hear their complaint. Only then will they be open to a solution.

Diagnose the core problem

Here's one simple way to become a better listener: Switch from listening for information about the problem to listening for the core issue. When we listen "about" something we tend to get wrapped up in the drama, which causes several things. For instance, we either phase out—if the emotional energy is more than we can handle—or we try to fix the problem so we can relieve our discomfort as well as the other person's pain.

Say what?

Instead, listen to learn what's being threatened that would cause your co-worker to feel so upset. Ask yourself, "What's at stake or what could this person lose?" This mindset keeps you present in the conversation, so the other person feels he or she is really being heard.

For example, say your receptionist, Debbie, comes in complaining about how her husband mistreated her. As you listen, think, "What's Debbie committed to that's being threatened?" Then you might respond, "Debbie, I hear that you're upset about the way Bill treated you. I also hear beneath it all how much you love him and how much it hurts when he doesn't appear to return that love." Remember, you don't need to solve the issue at this point. Just listen.

Move from complaint to action

When people feel fully heard, their feelings of frustration or anger evaporate—at least enough that they can move on with their day. Of course, sometimes team members face more complicated ongoing issues. In these tough situations, you can use the coaching process to turn complaints into committed action.

Create a climate of coaching

Developing a climate where you and your staff are not only familiar with coaching, but are open to it can be valuable when dealing with personal problems. In other words, people in your practice know they're not stuck treading water when they face persistent issues in their lives. They realize there's a way to gain insight into how to resolve such issues.

The first step is to ask for permission to coach the other person. "Debbie, I hear you've got quite a challenge going on with Bill. I would like to help any way I can. Are you open to some coaching on this matter?"

If she replies with a tentative yes, confirm that she's actually requesting coaching and is open to it. Otherwise your wisest wisdom will fall on deaf ears. If she says no, then simply let her know you're available if she changes her mind.

If she gives you a solid yes, the next step is to see whether she is prepared to move from complaining about the situation to taking action. "Great, Debbie. And if in this conversation we identify some specific actions you can take to help resolve the issue, are you willing to take them?"

Then help the person create a mini-gap. In other words, help her identify what the situation is currently, and what life will be like when the issue is resolved. The actions that bring the future into reality are in that gap between the current situation and the future outcome. An exploratory question such as, "If an objective third party observed this situation, how might he or she describe it?" helps the person evaluate the current situation. You could also ask, "What would you like your relationship with your husband to be like?" to help her see new possibilities. Invite her to take responsibility for her life. Help her explore actions she could take to move from the current situation to a time when the issue has been resolved, "What action could you take to move toward such a relationship?"

Provide support and assistance

The challenge isn't that staff members have personal problems, or that they bring them to work. Instead, the problem is that staff members don't know where to turn for help. Large companies may provide employee-assistance programs, but small businesses and practices seldom do. However, those veterinary practices that offer assistance may be more attractive places to work and may attract high-caliber applicants. Although in the past, such assistance was mostly limited to psychotherapists or counselors, today life coaching is a viable third option. And for many of the routine challenges life presents, coaching may be a better fit.

W. Bradford Swift, DVM

Editors' note:To help your team manage personal problems better, encourage them to review the March/April issue of Firstline. To share your thoughts about this article online, visit www.VetMedTeam.com W. Bradford Swift, DVM, is the founder of the Life on Purpose Institute and empowers professionals to live true to their life purpose through his writing, speaking, and coaching. Please send your questions or comments to ve@advanstar.com.

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