Guiding the Veterinary Team Through Conflict Resolution

This is the second in a series of blog posts written by Louise S. Dunn, who’s partnered with VetMatrix to provide educational content for veterinarians in different areas of their practice. Louise has 45+ years of experience in the veterinary field. She’s the owner of Snowgoose Veterinary Management Consulting, author of multiple books including “The 5 Minute Consult,” “Pathways to Ownership,” and “Veterinary Clinics of North America,” she is also a Fear Free certified professional.

A veterinary team and pets.

The day is off to the ‘typical’ start. Jenny called off so everyone in the break room ‘is hating on her.’ Dr. Smith upset Dr. Jones during a discussion about appropriate treatment options for a medical case. Nurse Tom and Receptionist Claire have started the ‘front vs. back’ fight over the day’s appointment schedule.  And you…well, you find yourself saying, “I don’t get paid enough to deal with this crap.” Sound familiar? 

Conflict happens – even in the best of teams. The problem is not necessarily conflict itself but rather how conflict is handled. The task of conflict resolution is placed squarely in the hands of the practice manager. To make the process easier, conduct team training sessions about conflict and communication techniques, and provide a roadmap (aka conflict resolution procedure) for the team to follow.

Etiology of Conflict

Notice the medical theme in the headline above? We are all trained to look for and understand the cause(s) of a medical condition. Teaching the team about conflict can be similar to teaching them about a medical condition. If a client brings in a vomiting dog, does the team start arguing with the client about poor care, neglect, or selfish behavior? No, the team resorts to their training about diseases and medical conditions that can cause vomiting – they start gathering the details, creating a list of potential causes, performing an assessment, and formulating a plan.  Can the team view conflict in a similar way? Conflict is the symptom, so what is the cause?

Conflict has many sources:

  • Dispute about inequities or preferential treatment
  • Competition for resources or battle for supremacy
  • Unfilled expectations
  • Different personalities or attitudes
  • Different goals or priorities, or different methods to achieve goals
  • Resistance to change
  • Unclear job expectations
  • Poor communication
  • Poor work habits
  • Toxic work environment
  • Personal problems (hard to leave problems at home at the door when coming into work)
  • Differences in perceptions and values (e.g., upbringing, culture, education, socio-economic class, previous experiences)

The extent of the list varies with the scope of one’s internet search. However, discussing a list of conflict sources can help the team when a conflict arises. Did Jenny call off / was the team response due to poor work habits, toxic work environment, or personalities? Is the conflict between the two doctors due to competition for supremacy, resistance to change, or poor communication? Is the front versus back conflict one of different goals or priorities, different methods to achieve a goal, or poor communication? Like the vomiting dog, conflict can be the result of several different root causes. Often, the nature of the problem is not even considered; instead, people fall into nine common responses. Responses that only escalate the level of conflict.

  1. Enter into combat mentality – want to see a winner and a loser
  2. Oversimplify the problem – because it is too difficult to tackle several issues at once
  3. Lack of respect – lack of respect for the other person and perhaps even yourself
  4. Lash out or shut down – respond aggressively or rush to smooth things over 
  5. Thwarting ploys – threats, stonewalling, sarcasm, silent treatment…
  6. Hooked and sucked into conflict – found your weak spot, where you are vulnerable and lose control
  7. Rehearse a script – play out in our mind, don’t listen – just recite the rehearsed script
  8. Make assumptions about intentions – assume the other person has ill-intentions 
  9. Lose sight of the goal – winning the argument is not the goal, must have clear, realistic outcomes

Looking back at the opening examples of the typical day’s conflicts, one can already see where the team skips identifying potential causes and goes straight to a knee-jerk response. Any of the nine listed responses are not part of an appropriate treatment plan for the conflict and will only make the condition worse. When the cause of the conflict is considered, moving to the next stage of communicating through the problematic situation becomes more manageable.

Plan to Communicate

A group of veterinarians communicating with each other.

To quote author Stephen Covey, “Seek first to understand and then to be understood.” Communicating through conflict does not mean speak loudly and have the last word. Educating the team on conflict communication tools gives the team what they need to address instead of avoiding it or escalating it. Give the team a few scenarios and let them explore responses using the following tools.

  • Use “I” instead of “you” to express your feeling (“I understand…”, “I feel…”, “I want…”)
  • Pay attention to body language since 55% of communication is body language (7% words, 38% tone of voice)
  • Ask questions trying to understand the other person, including how to improve the situation
  • Define the problem – do not assume intentions
  • Create a follow-up plan
  • Validate their feelings (“I’m sorry this hurt you.”)
  • Explain the consequences and the benefits of the actions taken
  • Explain how the actions conflict with your values
  • Explain how actions are hurting you and others

Perhaps the best tool is the I-based statement: “I feel ______ when you   (describe his/her behavior)   because   (specific impact). I would like  (what you want the person to do in the future to prevent the problem) .” Giving the team a few communication tools empowers them to first discuss the conflict before going to management to handle everything. This brings up another essential tool, following a process of dealing with conflict, when to involve management, and what steps can be taken to move through a resolution process.

Conflict SOP

Two veterinarians and a satisfied pet owner.

The team is trained to follow a SOAP or POVMR format to conduct a scientific process to diagnose and treat a patient. Something similar applies to conflict situations. One document to use is a Conflict Resolution Policy that outlines the process:

  • Manager meets with both parties involved in the conflict. 
    • Set the ground rules
    • Each person completes the standard complaint form
    • Each person summarizes his/her point of view.
  • Clarify the disagreement and conflicting views
    • Reflect, reframe, listen
  • Describe specific actions each party would like to see the other party take to resolve the differences
    • Stop doing, start doing, do more of, do less of (per Stephen Covey’s “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.”)
  • Get a commitment to making changes and monitor follow-through

Other formal policies to create are Anti-harassment and Complaint Procedure, and Code of Ethics and Business Conduct.  For a complaint procedure, steps should include:

  • Outline the steps to go through the process (as noted above)
  • Include the standard complaint form (employee will have it for any future need)
  • Have a statement about guaranteeing protection from being retaliated against
  • Be specific about time frames for processing (i.e., acknowledging complaints within three days of it being filed).  

Having procedures in place may curtail aimless complaining or griping because it shows that management takes complaints seriously. It will also ensure consistent and fair handling of all complaints. 

Conflict has a reputation for being negative – impacting productivity, morale, and patient care. Having an SOP for conflict resolution can help nip negative it in its early stages. It can also turn it into a positive experience by managing the discussion and working toward a resolution. Put the tools in place to effectively handle situations and turn negative conflict into positive growth.

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