Speaker at VLC outlines steps on how to be more compassionate to the most difficult people
Story and photo by Malinda Larkin
February 12, 2020
Clients who say they’re listening but don’t follow any of the instructions you gave. Clients who manhandle their cat to get it out of the cage instead of letting you try to help. Clients who yell at the front desk staff about the cost of a nail trim.
Some clients may seem as though they can’t be controlled without sedation. But Dr. Sarah J. Wooten, a former practicing veterinarian turned leadership and personal development speaker, says with the proper tools, even the most unruly ones can be tamed. It just takes some understanding and a different mindset for veterinarians and staff to take back their practices.
The first thing to remember is what it’s like to be on the other side of the examination table. Clients have no control over what is happening. Often they feel afraid that their pet is in pain and worry that their pet will be taken from the room.
Underlying all of that are other ongoing fears. How much is this going to cost? Am I going to be able to afford this?
“So they project on the nearest, nicest unsuspecting person, which is you. We are worldwide receptacles of everyone’s bad behaviors,” Dr. Wooten said. “We need to remember we serve people in crisis. We don’t go into veterinary medicine for this, but it is what it is.”
The trick is understanding fear behaviors—in yourself or others—and consciously overriding them, Dr. Wooten said. These fight-or-flight responses can involve some of the following:
Ignoring or avoiding issues.
Using humor or jokes to deflect.
Pretending to agree to avoid conflict.
Bullying others into submission.
Awareness, or mentally noting what is happening, helps to de-escalate the situation.
“When you’re removed a little from drama, it gives you enough space from the stimulus to consciously choose your response in that situation,” Dr. Wooten said. “You can take control of your reaction and the situation by observing the client, silently labeling the client’s fear reaction, and responding without judgment.”
Another tool is empathetic statements, which can reduce unproductive reactions during a difficult or triggering situation. A few examples include the following:
“Hi there. I’m Dr. Doe. How are you doing?
“I’m sure this isn’t what you planned to do today, right?”
“This is hard. I’m sorry.”
“I understand you are worried. We are going to do everything we can.”
Coupling these statements with eye contact, smiling, and listening reflectively can also help, she said.
Finally, meeting the client’s need for certainty and autonomy can go a long way. That means being upfront and transparent about how you will proceed with the examination, the options the client has, and what each option would mean as far as price and possible health outcomes.
Doing all these things will not only increase a person’s emotional intelligence but also help decrease compassion fatigue and increase productivity.
She notes that it’s easier said than done to hit the pause button before reacting, especially in the heat of the moment. Doing so takes intention as well as patience with yourself and others.
“This is all about practice. You won’t get it right the first time, but eventually you’ll hit the target, and you’ll be able to choose your responses in any situation,” Dr. Wooten said.
Dr. Jennifer Schurrer, practice manager and veterinarian at East Central Veterinarians in Minnesota, said the workshop was good for refining her skill set. She has applied similar teachings in her practice to create more cohesion between the two clinics she helps run. Now she hopes to train the staff on how to react more empathetically to clients.