The VHMA Files: How to handle a Debbie Downer in your veterinary practice


Turn a Debbie Downer's frown upside down and create positive energy to help your veterinary team members embrace change.

The veterinary hospital team loves the proposal. Not so fast: the office's Debbie Downer is about to speak up and put the kibosh on the enthusiasm. Eye rolls, sighs, quiet groans—Debbie's negativity is infectious. But Debbie—or Donald—Downer isn't in control. You are, and your skills can turn Debbie into a team player.


Identify downers

Chronic negativity in the office can stonewall progress and lead to low morale. Debbie's constant barrage of criticism and gloom isn't conducive to a productive and supportive practice environment.

The savvy manager understands that Debbie often masks deep fear: fear about whether she's bringing value to the office, fear about whether colleagues respect her, fear about the future.

Lift their spirits

Fearful people are vulnerable people. To change behavior, it is essential to acknowledge the Downer's point of view. Active listening is how professionals in the helping profession describe this approach. Allow the Downer to speak about concerns, yet put limits on the amount of time he or she has the floor.

As she shares her thoughts, it's essential for you to listen. Active listening involves hearing not only the words that are expressed, but also tuning into expressions, emotions and other body language. To confirm that you comprehend the issues, rephrase the Downer's sentiments in nonthreatening factual statements.

For example, when a Downer delivers an emotionally-charged diatribe about the practice's complicated recordkeeping, restate what you believe to be the facts of her case: "You are frustrated with our recordkeeping because the system is confusing." Keep in mind that buried in her complaints are legitimate issues that may require further attention.

After rephrasing, thank the speaker for sharing and acknowledge that she may have tapped into some of the concerns that have influenced the proposal introduced in the team meeting. By offering your appreciation and highlighting the connection between Debbie Downer's statements and the proposal she is critiquing, you show her respect, validate her comments and demonstrate she may be more closely aligned with the team's approach than she realized.

As with any type of behavioral change, the key to long lasting success is to be aware of the behavior you're trying to change, be consistent in your application of tactics and approach the employee with respect.

Christine Shupe, CAE, is the executive director of the Veterinary Hospital Managers Association. The association is dedicated to serving professionals in veterinary management through education, certification and networking.

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