Tips for resolving veterinary team conflict

December 4, 2020
Erica Tricarico, Senior Editor

Communication experts Carolyn Shadle, PhD, and John Meyer, PhD, offer useful strategies for diffusing staff conflict at your veterinary practice.

Conflict is a part of life. Although ridding your clinic of all strife is an impossible task, healthy resolution is possible, according to communication experts Carolyn Shadle, PhD, and her husband John Meyer, PhD.

For team members, differing perspectives, feelings of inferiority, jealousy, and uncertainty about roles can lead to office quarrels.

“People have different perspectives on their job, how it should be done, about their profession, and the goals of their profession…. And they start fighting with each other just because they do have these different perspectives,” said Meyer.

It may seem easier to ignore conflict, but it’s best to approach it head-on. The goal is for each party to get what they need—a “win-win,” Shadle and Meyer shared during their lecture at the recent Fetch dvm360® virtual conference.

How to listen

Stellar listening skills are key to resolving team conflict, the experts explained. They offer a few tips to help your team members listen like pros.

Silence is golden. Sometimes, amid conflict, silence is the best response. Stop and think about what the other person said before responding and always be cognizant of your body language. Nonverbal communication can speak louder than words. Try to keep your body language open. Lean forward and nod to show that you are listening. “We have to be sensitive about how much we communicate even when we’re not communicating,” said Shadle.

But what happens when silence is not enough? Try statements such as “Say more” or “Tell me about it,” said Shadle. These statements let your coworker know that you’re listening and that you care about what they have to say.

Paraphrase. Repeat what your team member said to ensure you fully understood everything. Be sure to ask questions for clarity.

Listen for feelings.We typically show people how we feel instead of using our words to express our feelings. “Our feelings vocabulary is pretty diminished,” said Shadle. During conflict, pay attention to each other’s feelings and then attempt to put them into words. For example, “David, I sense that you’re feeling afraid of….” If you interpret their feelings incorrectly, that’s OK. This will allow them to explain how they actually feel.

Putting feelings into words is a difficult skill to master, but with a little practice, it’s powerful, said Shadle. “When people sense that their feelings are heard, they open up, and they relax, and they’re willing to talk,” she said.

Speaking up

It can be challenging to speak up with care and control, especially if you feel that you are right and the other person is wrong, said Shadle. “You can be so insistent that you drive the other person into silence,” Meyer added. “It’s difficult to speak up when people cut off the conversation.” Maybe you feel anger, resentment, embarrassment, or fear. Or, you’re afraid of being fired or criticized for speaking up, or feel your self-identity is on the line. There’s a tool that can pull you out of this black hole of despair: the I-statement.

“One of the skills everyone can add to their bag of tricks is the I-statement,” said Shadle.

The I-statement allows you to explain where you are coming from and how you feel. For example, “I feel anxious about our practice embracing technology.” This statement is an expression of how you feel. You have to own it. Other people can’t deny how you feel.

Be sure your statement is not a you-message, she added. A you-message is often an inflammatory statement that adds salt to the wound. For example, “You get on my nerves. You never do anything right.”

The scout mindset

Another way to tame conflict in your clinic is to instill the scout mindset among your team members. A scout is curious, values accuracy and solving problems, is well-grounded, and isn’t concerned about being right or wrong. These traits lead to practicing good judgment during conflict, Shadle and Meyer explained. You’re not there to win or lose but to understand, Shadle said. Scouts try to understand what’s behind the resistance.

How to get to a win-win

In your practice, it’s crucial that every team member feels accepted, heard, and respected. So ultimately, to get to a win-win, you have to approach every conflict as a learning opportunity, the couple said. Acknowledge the other person, share your feelings, continue the dialogue, and avoid roadblocks, Shadle concluded.