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Top 5 Tools for Communicating in Tough Situations

Debbie Boone, CCS, CVPM, 2 Manage Vets Consulting, Gibsonville, North Carolina

June 2017|Peer Reviewed
Top 5 Tools for Communicating in Tough Situations

Respectful, positive interactions even during disagreements can be vital determinants of business success.1 Veterinary team members face challenges daily (eg, finances, patient-care and end-of-life decisions, holding each other accountable for errors), and they must learn the skills to be successful when faced with critical conversations. 

Here are 5 tools that will help you hold your own in tough situations.


Show Empathy

Empathy means being able to place yourself in another’s shoes. Consider the common occurrence of a client who comes in during emergency hours with a very sick pet—and few funds. The client first would have experienced the freeze response when he or she discovered the pet’s problem. Now his or her adrenaline level is through the roof and the brain is in flee or fight mode because a beloved pet is in distress. Also, the client is in an unfamiliar, stressful environment (ie, the veterinary practice) and is hearing words that are difficult to comprehend (ie, medical terms).

Ask yourself, How would I like to be treated if I did not work here and I was on the other side of that counter or examination table? Showing empathy for such clients includes having financing solutions readily available and displaying your understanding of client concerns by carefully explaining patient information in layman’s language.

Related Articles
Diverse Communication Styles: Bridging the Gap
Avoiding the Roadblocks to Effective Communication


Use Personality & Behavior Assessments

Understanding personality preferences is one of the most helpful tools for good communication and many iterations of these tests, based on William Marston’s theory of traits, are available. The DiSC Profile and the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, 2 of the most common profile tools, are based on the fact that humans are predisposed to their communication preferences. Someone with a high value in a DiSC category tends to have specific communication preferences.

  • Dominant people prefer a direct and objective style.
  • Influencers are visual; they do well with models and videos and are more dramatic in their style.
  • Those with Steadiness prefer a softer, more emotional approach.
  • Those who are Conscientious like lots of facts and details—and time to ponder them.2

(See Resources for tests to learn your personality style.)


Be Aware of Body Language

Experts say people communicate mostly (ie, 55%-65%) with their bodies.3 The ability to read and understand body language is instinctual, and studies show 2-day-old babies can read their mothers’ body language.4 Humans in distress react with their limbic brain to freeze, flee, or fight.5 Learning how to react to and intervene with another person’s freeze response may avoid the need to deal with a fight.

Consider a client waiting patiently for her appointment. She is seated, and at first her foot is slowly wiggling and her hands are relaxed and calm. As time passes, she frowns, impatiently checks her watch, begins rapidly moving her foot, and clenches her hands. She is exhibiting the flee response (ie, a nervous reaction to unhappiness). A team member can head off a fight by reading the client’s body language and reacting with an appropriate response (eg, acknowledging the delay, checking the wait time, offering coffee, offering to reschedule the appointment).

Related Articles
Tips for Team Communication
Communication Breakdown? Form a partnership, make a contract


Listen Respectfully

When their beliefs are questioned, people tend to react with either silence or violence.1 Instead of openly and actively listening, they shut down and do not respond, or they fly into a rage and react in a manner they later regret. Active listening is similar to the way people concentrate when playing the game Simon Says—they focus so they do not make mistakes.

Tips on Active Listening

  • Avoid looking away from the client.
  • Do not multitask when talking with the client.
  • Take notes while listening.
  • Be present—not distracted.

Everyone deserves that level of intense listening, even during a disagreement. Find common ground and build on the agreement.


Be Confident

The power of confidence cannot be measured. Confidence gives a great athlete the power to take the final shot to win the game and the brilliant surgeon the courage to push the envelope of the next cutting-edge procedure. Confidence comes from knowledge and practice and gives people the power to stand up for their beliefs. Training, studying, and practicing how to gracefully and respectfully engage in tough interactions builds the confidence needed to handle hard topics.

Tips on Building Confidence

  • Practice your body language by watching a video of yourself to see what improvements are needed.
  • Try out your conversation with a noninvolved party.
  • Make a list of common, difficult topics and questions and plan responses.


Tough situations handled well are a win-win for both parties involved. Respectful disagreement can strengthen teams, bond clients, prevent mistakes, and even save patients’ lives.

1 Have team members take personality assessments to help them understand how each team member prefers to give and receive information.

2 Teach team members the art of active listening and encourage them to use the skill when communicating with other team members and clients.

References and Author Information

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