Talking tips for tense situations


Welcome to the team meeting on conflict communication. Get ready to eradicate-or at least decrease-conflict in your practice. The four meeting parts below will help you teach your team how-and why-to keep cool in heated situations with both clients and co-workers. You'll find a trainer's script and team activities in each section. We recommend beginning with part No. 1 then progressing through to part No. 4 to give your team the most complete understanding of the topic. Do this, and your team will emerge transformed from arguers and blame-layers into problem-solvers.

Press the links below to access the meeting tools.

Expert contributors

Thank you to the following experts for their contributions to the material for this meeting:

Paul Camilo, CVPM

President, Veterinary Consultation Services

Practice administrator, All Pets Dental

Weston, Fla.

Debbie Gair, CVPM

Management recruiter and coach

Bridging the Gap

Sparta, Mich.

Julie Mullins

Veterinary assistant and staff training coordinator

Seaside Animal Care

Calabash, N.C.

Pamela Stevenson, CVPM


Veterinary Results Management

Durham, N.C.

Part 1: Team knowledge

Conflict is poison for a practice. It can be linked to lower productivity in the treatment areas, a lower bottom line, and fewer appointments. Worst of all, team conflict affects the care your practice provides. This 15-minute meeting section will help you teach your team that effective communication is about more than just getting along. It's about offering the best client and patient care possible. This section also gives you access to the training tools, including two activity ideas. View Part 1

Part 2: Implementation

You've demonstrated why team members should strive to work through conflict through effective communication. Now it's time to practice. This 15-minute meeting section offers advice for how to role-play effectively. Wait! Don't dismiss the idea of role-play. Many practice owners and managers say it's one of the most effective ways to train team members. Plus it really can be fun. View Part 2

Part 3: Client communication

Part of working through conflicts with clients is teaching them why your practice does what it does. It's also about changing team members' perspectives and helping them view situations through pet owners' eyes. This 15-minute meeting section addresses how to teach clients about what constitutes an emergency and challenges team members to stop judging clients. View Part 3

Part 4: Marketing and follow-through

Strong communication takes repeated effort and this meeting section will help you and your team members continually work on talking through conflict. Your team members will learn how to see client complaints as opportunities for improvement and how to rely on scripts to give positive responses to potentially contentious questions from clients. Keep your momentum going by reviewing the final section of this four-part team meeting. View Part 4


Part 1: Team knowledge

Part 1 resources

Download these handouts and tools before your team meeting:

To introduce the topic of team communication during conflict, start your team meeting with this statement: "Conflict is poison for a practice." (To download a trainer's script that outlines exactly what to say during your meeting, click here.) Then go on to share that it can be linked to lower productivity in the treatment areas, a lower bottom line, and fewer appointments. Worst of all, team conflict affects the care your practice provides-you can't effectively care for clients and patients when you can't effectively communicate with each other. It's simply impossible.

As you discuss the value of effective team communication, especially during conflict, tell your team that it's about more than just getting along. It comes back to your goal: offering the best care possible for pets and their owners. Let your team members know that if you all you can remember this is the real reason you come to the practice every day, you'll be able to work through most of the daily problems you face with more poise and grace. Plus, you'll be able to defuse big problems faster.

1-minute activity: Talk about attitude

After giving a brief introduction as suggested above, ask team members the following: "Think about attitude-what attitude do you bring to the beginning of every day here?" The purpose of this question is to remind team members that attitude can be a decision. People can decide to start the day positively regardless of the personal or professional problems they face.

After you've given team members a minute or so to consider their attitude, bring up the point that attitude can be a choice and you'd like to create a practice environment where people choose to approach the day with a positive focus. Be careful here, because people who thought of negative responses might start to feel threatened or patronized. To minimize these feelings, share a personal example. This will allow you to introduce the idea of choosing your own attitude without seeming overly critical or overly optimistic. Here's an example:

"One of my duties is to follow up with clients who weren't satisfied with their visits. This is difficult and I could easily dread these calls. But, instead, I try to look forward to them, approaching them as opportunities to help a client and patient, as well as find areas where we can improve our practice.”

Segue into introducing the first rule of conflict communication: resolution. You want to address problems immediately so they don't turn into lingering situations that create poisonous team conflict. Your goal is to turn team members' focus from their frustrations to their problem-solving abilities. You want them to view each annoyance with a new perspective on the situation and to resolve the conflict so everyone ends up with a better outlook.

15-minute activity: Say this, not that

To practice, download “5 Conflict Scenarios” and print it on cardstock or paper. Cut the page into cards as indicated. Depending on the size of your team, give each team member a card or divide team members into five groups, giving each group a card. Provide paper and pencils so team members can write down their responses. Introduce the activity like this: “Each group will look at a common conflict scenario that we might face with each other or with clients. Each group will write down one snarky response that you might like to say, as well as one more appropriate response that would cut through the conflict.”

After giving team members five minutes to write down their responses, ask each person or group to share. Then discuss as a team what was great about their responses-this could be that they had the funniest comeback. Most importantly, discuss which statements would encourage conflict resolution and problem solving and why. The “why” is actually the most important part, because when team members grasp why certain statements work, they'll be more likely to use them. Offer a small reward, like a $5 coffee gift card, for the team members who come up with the best responses.


Before you end the first section of your conflict communications meeting, tell team members that you'd like them to do a bit of follow-up in the next two days. (Note: If you're holding an hour-long meeting on conflict communications rather than covering the topic across a series of meetings, do the following items before your meeting.) Ask them to write or type the situations that most frustrate them at work. These could be situations related to client or co-worker communications, or they might be about an operational situation, such as the retail area always being understocked.

Let team members know that, immediately following the meeting, you'll be putting a box in the break room. Ask team members to anonymously submit their top frustrations. You'll use the situations in your next team meeting.

Continue to Part 2: In-clinic implementation


Part 2: Implementation

Part 2 resources

Download these handouts and tools before your team meeting:

Part 1 of this meeting ended with the suggestion that team members submit their most frustrating work situations. Look through their submissions and choose two that you think are both important for your team to solve and appropriate for group discussion.

But first, be sure you're prepared to walk team members through the discussion. (To download a trainer's script that outlines what to say during the meeting, click here.)

One essential to being prepared is ensuring that your practice's conflict communications policies are completely spelled out in your practice handbook. Consider whether your practice's reporting structure and policies define when team members should work problems out themselves and when it's appropriate to bring them to a manager. Think about whether they outline how employees should treat each other, even in conflict. If your policies and handbook don't cover these items, they should. (Note: Part 4 of this meeting addresses how to handle persistent conflicts and what to do when a manager must get involved.)

Including this level of detail gives team members clear direction for dealing with problems and gives managers a clear way to encourage team members to take responsibility and problem-solve. So, if you haven't already, create your own unique policy, which will be based on your practice size, structure, and culture. If you need examples, here are three that might help:

"Rules of Conduct" courtesy of Dickman Road Veterinary Clinic

"No Gossip Policy" courtesy of New Hartford Animal Hospital

"Principles of Mutual Respect" courtesy of Broad Ripple Animal Clinic & Wellness Center

When your conflict communications policies are in place, be sure you've distributed your handbook to all team members, and provide every new employee with a copy. In fact, you should hold a separate team meeting to introduce your policies. Some experts would even say you should hold a team meeting before you create the policies in order to get employee feedback, which promotes buy-in. Once your policies are in place, to ensure team members remember and adhere to them, periodically dust off your employee handbook and review the pertinent sections.

Why go through all this, plus work on communication skills at team meetings? Experts agree that regular practice help prepares team members to successfully handle tense situations when they arise. And one of the best ways to prepare is to take a time out for role-play, which is the suggested activity for this part of your conflict communications meeting.

Why role-play?

Many team members are wary of role-playing. Whether they're nervous about the idea of presenting to their peers or the idea of being judged on what they say, you may face groans and eye rolls when you first propose a round of role-play. Some team members may even resist participating. But it's important to insist. Experts who use role-play in their own practices say that if team members aren't comfortable going through these discussions in front of their peers, they won't be able to confidently and effectively engage in the same discussions during heated situations with co-workers or clients.

To get tips from one practice that regularly role-plays client and team communication, watch the video below.

You can even play this video for your team members to help them see the value in the activity. To get started with your own communications role-play, first assure your team members that the experience will be fun and positive. If your practice has never role-played before, it's best for you and a senior staff member to do the first round. In this case, the first round would be one of the two topics you selected from your team members' submissions of frustrating work situations.

15-minute activity: Role-play those frustrations

Here's how to carry out the role-play activity in your team meeting:

Explain that you'll be role-playing two situations as submitted by team members. The people doing the role-play will read the situation and plan a two-minute vignette during which they'll act out how they would handle the situation in order to work toward a solution.

Select two people to go first. (Remember, you may be one of the first two people if your practice has never role-played before.) Show them the frustrating situation and give them a minute or two to plan.

While the rest of the team waits for the role-players to plan, ask the team to consider what they think should be said in order to resolve the situation. This will help generate discussion after the role-play.

After the role-players have made their plan, ask them to act out their two-minute vignette.

When they've finished, discuss as a team what they did well and offer suggestions for ways the situation could be handled even more effectively.

Alternate 15-minute activity: Advanced role-play

If your practice is adept at role-playing, the above activity will still be useful. But you can take the education a step further by recording phone calls and using real team member experiences as teaching examples. (Note: Depending on state law, before you record a phone call you may need to include a disclaimer in your phone message to clients that the call may be recorded for training or quality-control purposes.) This can be sensitive, because you're offering up a real situation-and a team member's response-to illustrate a point. If you record phone calls, experts recommend choosing examples of your own conversations first. And if you'd like to use examples of other team members' conversations, ask their permission before you share their experiences in a team meeting.

To use the audio in a team meeting, play a tape of a conversation during the meeting. After listening as a team, engage in a group discussion to allow team members to talk about what went right and suggest ways to more effectively handle the scenario. Yes, you could even role-play these situations.

Regardless of whether you take the basic or advanced approach, end this section of your team meeting on a positive note. Praise team members for their participation in what can be an uncomfortable setting. You could even offer a few prizes-such as $5 gift cards-or do something as simple as set out a bowl of fruit in the break room next to a card that congratulates team members for working to improve at conflict communications.

Continue to Part 3: Client education


Part 3: Client communication

Part 3 resources

Download these handouts and tools before your team meeting:

Clients aren't always nice, but veterinary medicine is ultimately a service industry, so your team members must rise to the next level when clients dump troubles at your doorstep. Whether it's a noncompliant client who never follows directions or a pet owner who raises the team's collective blood pressure by calling with nonurgent “emergencies” a minute before closing time, clients can be a huge source of stress in your clinic. And practicing effective communication can prepare your team to say the right words when tempers flare.

This part of the meeting gives you two options for helping your team see the client's perspective: 1) You can focus specifically on handling client emergencies or 2) you can focus more generally on handling noncompliant clients and avoiding judgment of them. (To download a trainer's script that outlines what to say during both meeting options, click here.)

Option 1-Nonurgent "emergencies"

Clients lack your medical knowledge, and this can create all kinds of conflict if you and your team members fail to look at each situation from their viewpoint. For example, drug names and compliance instructions that seem simple to veterinary team members can sound foreign and scary to pet owners. As a result, clients may begin to tune out or fail to listen because they're absorbed in fear for Fluffy.

Client emergencies also offer strong examples of how communication can go wrong. Veterinary team members often cite end-of-day nonemergency calls as a big frustration that can spark conflict. But these types of situations represent times when it's critical for team members to be great communicators. When team members let their frustration show with these last-minute calls, they can ruin a relationship with a pet owner who's desperately seeking reassurance during a difficult time.

15-minute activity: Handling client emergencies

If your team struggles to handle client emergencies or has trouble converting these types of calls into appointments, we recommend you focus on this activity. Ask team members to complete this handout: “Case study: When clients call with an emergency.” Give them a few minutes to write their answers individually, then discuss their responses as a team.

Client handout: "When to take your pet to the vet"

To give your team members a leg up in handling client emergencies, educate your clients about when to contact you-hopefully sooner rather than later. Offer this handout to in your puppy and kitten packets and to all new clients to educate them about emergencies and signs their pet needs to be examined by a veterinarian. Tip: This handout might also be helpful for new team members and those with less medical training.

Option 2-Avoid judging noncompliant clients

Noncompliant clients represent another huge source of potential conflict in your practice. Team members need to practice their topnotch communication skills to avoid conflict when they're really dying to shout, “Don't you even care about your pet?” or “Why won't you just follow our instructions already?” These are judgmental statements about clients, and it's hard to avoid thinking them. But the end goal is to not only avoid making judgmental statements about clients but also to avoid thinking judgmental thoughts about them.

Yes, even though you might not utter judgmental statements, the mere thoughts themselves drain your energy and get in the way of communication, patient care, and your practice's financial success. When you judge, you waste time sizing up clients and you end up feeling small, mean, or superior-all of which suck the life out of a situation and cloud your thoughts.

Most people are virtually unaware of their judgmental thoughts. Your mind generates them in an effort to continually compare yourself to others. You're generally happier when you determine you're better, smarter, and more together than everybody else. On the flip side, when you view someone positively, your ego might take a hit: "Look at Kara. She's so much better with patients than I am."

People react strongly to traits they dislike in others because they're afraid to admit they could exhibit these traits themselves. In her book Why Good People Do Bad Things (HarperOne, 2008), life coach and author Debbie Ford offers this insight:

Consider the proliferation of reality television shows that allow us to voyeuristically observe the competitive, petty, and often mean-spirited behavior of the colorful cast of characters. We would not be so intrigued, so engrossed, and so compelled if we did not possess the same urges and instincts. When we are projecting onto others and judging their behaviors, our own suddenly don't seem that bad.

1-minute activity: It's not you, it's me

To help your team avoid judging noncompliant clients, as well as all clients and even team members, start with this activity, which encourages team members to look for the truth in what Ford says. Ask team members to think of a noncompliant client or one who often upsets them. Give them one minute to confidentially write down everything they don't like about the pet owner. Then ask team members to place a check mark by the qualities that they also possess-but usually try to conceal. If you'd like, it's OK for you and your team members to discuss the traits you share with the clients. When you accept and embrace the behaviors and attributes you'd like to change in yourself, they hold less power over you. And you'll be more understanding-and less judgmental-of the clients who exhibit them.

12-minute activity: Check your list twice

Think of five clients your whole team knows. Try to think of at least two clients your team considers difficult and at least two your team considers ideal. Break employees into five groups. Give each group a different client name and ask the people in the group to list their impressions of the client.

After about two minutes, ask one person from each group to read the list. As this person reads, team members in other groups should note any similar descriptions, such as “rude.” After the five groups have read their lists, discuss as a team why multiple groups labeled their clients as “rude,” for example. Through this, you'll be identifying common ground and areas where your team likely needs to treat clients with more sensitivity.

Now ask team members to return to their groups and take two minutes to write down facts about the client. Then hold a team-wide discussion about how the facts compare to the impressions. Make sure the lists of truths aren't just judgments in disguise. The next time these clients visit, work with the facts so you'll be able to offer better client and patient care.

Homework: The five-day challenge

Cut down that list by having some fun with this exercise: Start with the goal of going five consecutive days without making a judgment. Every time you catch yourself or a team member judging, start the five days over. Even with diligent effort, odds are you won't be able to get past Day One for quite a while. After all, these thought patterns have been present for most of your life, so it will take time to retrain your mind.

To wrap up this section of your meeting, remind team members that, when they're frustrated with clients, they should focus on your shared goal: client service and patient care. You're all working at the practice because you want to safeguard the lives of pets and support their human companions. Keeping this top of mind will help everyone stay focused, and the conflicts that arise will take on less significance.

Continue to Part 4: Marketing and follow-through


Part 4: Marketing and follow-through

Part 4 resources

Download these handouts and tools before your team meeting:

Meeting part 1 and part 2 explained the importance of effective conflict communication and part 3 helped you work through tense client situations. With this background in place, you can look at boosting-and maintaining-the level of communication at your practice. (To download a trainer's script that outlines exactly what to say during your meeting, click here.)

10-minute activity: Complaints as marketing opportunities

A great way to change team members' perspective and ease tension is to look at client conflicts as marketing opportunities in disguise. This exercise will help your team members do just that.

One of the most commonly faced items of contention between team members and clients is price. In meeting part 1, your team worked through a conversation with a client requesting a discount. Take that training a step further and use this handout to gauge how well you've trained team members to handle a loyal client who's requesting a discount, as well as a price shopper who's questioning your fees.

Remember that nobody's perfect

Activities like the one above help prepare team members to handle conflict. But it's easier to talk about the right things than it is to actually keep cool during the heat of the moment. All team members will get the chance to test their skills because they'll all eventually find themselves in a tense situation. And it's likely that none of them-including you-will perform perfectly every time.

But remember that we're all human-clients and team members alike. Everyone will have a bad day once in a while. So remind your team members that it's critical to show a willingness to admit a mistake and apologize. Perhaps in a busy moment you snap at a co-worker. Admitting you're frustrated because you've got three appointments waiting will go a long way to keeping a positive practice culture-and maintaining solid relationships with co-workers.

Remind team members that your ultimate goal is for them to feel equipped to handle most conflicts on their own so you can move forward in order to focus on offering the best client and patient care. Reiterate that the employee handbook outline conflict management strategies, including your reporting structure and how team members should handle conflict. Considering the handbook and the training tools you've presented in this series of team meetings, ask team members if there are any additional tools they'd like you to provide.

Formal follow-up: Watch for warning signs

Keep team members focused on conflict resolution by giving them this list of warning signs that conflict might be getting out of hand at your practice. Ask them to refer to it periodically, rating your practice. Best yet, bring the list to an occasional team meeting and ask team members to take a look at it. If they feel like one or more of the items applies to your practice and team, they should check the relevant boxes and bring the list to you.

Formal follow-up: Offer rules to live by

Show your commitment to ending team and client conflict, which often begins with avoiding judgmental thoughts, by handing out the "5 Tolerance Commandments." Also post it in your break room for a constant reminder. This will help you and your fellow team members support each other on the path to being judgment-free.


Let team members know that they've done it! They're now communication ninjas capable of defusing almost any hot situation. Reiterate that, when they're frustrated in the heat of the moment, they should focus on your shared goal: excellent client service and patient care. You're all working at the practice because you want to safeguard the lives of pets and support their human companions. Always keep this top of mind to avoid “sweating the small stuff,” as the saying goes.

Also remind them that conflict communications is an ongoing process. You'll revisit the topic during meetings throughout the year to keep everyone working toward your goal of excellence. Then let team members know you're proud of them and appreciate their efforts-as do your clients and patients.

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