Navigating client, staff communication relies on active listening, letting things go

Session shares tools for diffusing conflict at Veterinary Leadership Conference

Imagine this scenario: A client comes into your veterinary practice with Wikipedia printouts, a diagnosis for their pet from Google, and insisting on specific treatments. How do you react?

There are actually a few different ways, according to Dr. Dani Rabwin, founder of  the mentorship program Ready, Vet, Go, and Debra Hamilton, JD, the principal at Hamilton Law and Mediation, a law practice dedicated to helping people resolve conflicts involving animals.

Woman veterinarian interacting with clients
Building trust among oneself, clients and colleagues is the first step toward shared decision-making, explained Dr. Dani Rabwin. Building on that trust creates positive partnerships that ensure everyone feels heard, respected and valued as a key player in the success of the practice.

They presented the session “Clear Communication–Smoothing Out Rough Discussions with Colleagues, Staff and Clients” at the AVMA Veterinary Leadership Conference on January 6 in Chicago.

To begin, being conscious and aware of communication choices can help people stay calm during a potential conflict. They emphasized that making an effort to smooth out rough discussions helps retain clients and staff members by creating satisfaction in relationships. They also provided skills to enable veterinarians to respond to difficult discussions, replacing reactivity and defensiveness with appreciation and acknowledgement.

Two ears for listening

Dr. Rabwin and Hamilton referenced the Stop, Drop, and Roll method, because putting out conflict can feel, “as if you’re on fire.” The principals are stop talking, drop the need to be right, let it roll off your back.

Starting with approaching conflict with empathy and transparency can be helpful.

Conflicts occur when information is perceived differently, and parties fail to recognize and respect individual perspectives.

Active listening puts someone in a position to find out more, which addresses the real problem, not the one in their head.

“If you appreciate what someone is sharing with you, it simply means you're actively listening, it doesn’t mean you agree,” Hamilton said.

Then, make sure you ask the other party if you correctly heard what they said, added Dr. Rabwin. “This shows acknowledgment and appreciation.”

An example would be adding a statement such as, “It sounds as if you’ve been concerned about Bud’s vomiting for three days. Is that correct?” 

Instead of anticipating a response immediately, listening will maintain, support, protect, and retain everyone’s dignity.

Shared decision-making

It can be uncomfortable to take a call or meet with a client or staff member who is upset, but when veterinarians include clients in the solution, they will be loyal fans, Hamilton explained.

“Being combative is never going to serve you,” Hamilton said. “If you drop the need to be right, you will be more correct if you listen early. You'll find out more information.”

Instead of becoming defensive, clinician curiosity has been found by clients to be friendly, not intrusive, Dr. Rabwin explained. It increases trust, fostering a better outcome for all, and supports shared decision-making.

Shared decision-making is when two or more participants discuss information and preferences and reach an agreement on how to proceed. It proposes that informed preferences—what matters to clients and colleagues—should play a major role in the decision-making process.

According to Dr. Rabwin and Hamilton, this promotes satisfaction for all parties, improves health outcomes, and leads to fewer malpractice claims and license reviews.

Let it go

“Let what clients say roll off your back,” Hamilton said. “Appreciate and acknowledge what the client says, with no condescension.”

One way to do that is to have an internal dialogue, such as “The client isn’t giving me a hard time, they are having a hard time.” 

Rather, thank the client or colleague for bringing the issue up. When developing a solution, recognize there is always more than one answer. Once again, seek to hear another point of view and keep your ears open and mouth shut, they advised.

Client anger often comes from being upset about their pet, and ultimately the care team and client both want the same thing–excellent care for the animal.

“Don’t take it personally, it's rarely if ever about you,” Hamilton said. “It's not a knock on your abilities. They’re trying to help you. They’re not trying to compromise or question your capabilities.”

A version of this story appears in the March 2024 print issue of JAVMA


The Positive Pet Care Guide is the result of an industry-wide working group, led by the AVMA and Mars Veterinary Health, aimed at strengthening the relationship between veterinary teams and pet owners through resources, education, and collaboration. The free resource is available to download online.