Navigating Difficult Conversations in Veterinary Medicine

In the emotionally charged and fast-paced world of veterinary medicine, difficult conversations are as inevitable as yearly vaccinations, emergency visits, and dogs named Bella IYKYK. Whether you're a seasoned vet tech, a practice manager, veterinary receptionist, or a veterinarian, you've likely found yourself in challenging dialogues with colleagues, supervisors, or pet parents. The stakes are high, and the emotional toll can be significant — especially if you’re already dealing with compassion fatigue and burnout. In this blog, we’ll share some tools and strategies you can use when navigating difficult conversations in a way that makes everyone (including YOU) feel seen, heard, and supported.

Social Wellness and Workplace Culture in Veterinary Medicine

What is Social Wellness?

Before we jump in, let’s talk about social wellness. Social wellness refers to the quality of relationships and social networks you have in your life, including those at work. It's not just about being friendly; it's about fostering a sense of community and mutual respect among team members. 

Why It Matters

A positive workplace culture can be a buffer against the stressors that are inevitable in a field like veterinary medicine. It can also make difficult conversations less intimidating and more productive. When team members feel supported and valued, they are more likely to engage in open dialogue, leading to better patient care and job satisfaction.

Building a Positive Workplace Culture

Creating a positive workplace culture is a collective effort. It involves leadership, open communication, and a commitment to continuous improvement. Check out this blog post to learn more about workplace culture!

Avoiding Miscommunications When Emotions Run High

The Emotional Landscape

Veterinary clinics can be emotionally charged environments. Factors like compassion fatigue, burnout, and the urgency of medical situations can contribute to heightened emotions. It's not uncommon for team members to feel overwhelmed, leading to potential miscommunications.

Strategies for Clear Communication

  1. Active Listening: Give your full attention to the speaker, making eye contact and nodding to show understanding. Active listening is not just about hearing; it's about understanding the underlying emotions and concerns. And try to avoid any pre-conceived notions or making assumptions until you’ve heard the full story.
  2. Non-Verbal Cues: Pay attention to your body language, as it often conveys more than words. A furrowed brow or crossed arms can indicate discomfort or disagreement, even if the person hasn't verbalized it. But use discretion from person to person when using body language as a way to evaluate others as people can have a wide range of ways they show emotions through their facial expressions and body language.
  3. Open-Ended Questions: Encourage dialogue by asking questions that require more than a yes-or-no answer. This can help uncover the root cause of an issue and lead to more constructive conversations.
  4. Address Issues Promptly: Don't let misunderstandings ; address them as soon as possible. The longer an issue goes unaddressed, the more difficult it becomes to resolve.

Navigating Difficult Conversations

Preparation is Key

Before entering a difficult conversation, take time to prepare. Understand the issue at hand, anticipate the other person's perspective, and choose an appropriate time and setting for the discussion.

Conducting the Conversation

  1. Honesty and Tact: Be straightforward but considerate in your language. Honesty is crucial, but it should never be used as a weapon.
  2. Reflection and Follow-Up: After the conversation, evaluate its effectiveness and plan any necessary follow-up discussions. This ensures that the issue is fully resolved and prevents future misunderstandings.
  3. Non-Confrontational Language: Using non-confrontational language can defuse tension and facilitate a more productive conversation. Phrases like "I feel" instead of "you made me feel" and "it seems" instead of "you always" can make a significant difference. Using non-confrontational language not only helps to keep the conversation civil but also opens the door for more meaningful dialogue. It shifts the focus from blaming to understanding, making it easier to find common ground.

Examples of Non-Confrontational Language

  1. "I feel overlooked" instead of "You're ignoring me."
  2. "It seems like there's a misunderstanding" instead of "You're not listening to me."
  3. "Can we discuss this?" instead of "We need to talk."

Nailing Constructive Feedback

Providing constructive feedback is an art form. It requires a balanced approach, careful choice of words, and impeccable timing. Always remember that feedback is a two-way street; be prepared to listen as much as you speak.

The SBI Model

The Situation-Behavior-Impact (SBI) model is a useful framework for providing constructive feedback. It involves describing the Situation where the behavior occurred, specifying the Behavior, and explaining the Impact it had. This model helps to keep the feedback focused and actionable.

The Importance of Timing

Timing is crucial when giving feedback. Choose a moment when both you and the recipient are not stressed or distracted. This ensures that the feedback is given the attention it deserves and increases the likelihood of a positive outcome.

Mastering the Art of Voicing Your Concerns

So, you've listened, you've empathized, and now it's your turn to talk. But how do you make sure you're heard without turning the convo into a battlefield? Here are some next-level strategies:

The Power of Storytelling

Humans are wired to understand and retain stories. Frame your concerns as a narrative, complete with a beginning, middle, and end. This can make your points more memorable and relatable.

The 'What's In It For Them' Approach

People are more likely to engage in a conversation when they see a benefit for themselves. Frame your concerns in a way that shows how resolving the issue can also make their life easier or better.

The Rule of Three

In rhetoric, the Rule of Three suggests that concepts or ideas presented in threes are inherently more interesting and memorable. Try to frame your concerns around three key points to make your argument more compelling and easier to digest.

The Socratic Method

Instead of just stating your concerns, ask questions that lead the other person to understand your point of view. This can make them more open to your perspective because they feel like they arrived at the conclusion themselves.

The Boomerang Effect

Be prepared for pushback and have a counter-argument ready. This shows that you've thought the issue through from multiple angles and are open to a constructive debate.

Exploring Scenarios from the Vet Tech Perspective

Navigating difficult conversations is never a walk in the park, especially in a high-stakes environment like a vet clinic. Trust me, I've been there, and I get how draining it can be. Let's dive into some scenarios you might find all too familiar, and explore how the strategies we've discussed can be applied.

We've recently started a series on our TikTok / Instagram walking veterinary professionals through some of the difficult conversations and scenarios we'll cover below. We've included the link to each video in case you want to see the scenario in action.

Push Back for Going on a Break

You're six hours into a hectic shift and feeling the fatigue set in. A senior colleague retorts, "I never got breaks in my day." We've all been there—feeling like you're running on fumes and then getting pushback when you try to recharge. It's like a double whammy of exhaustion and frustration. Try sharing a brief story of a time when you made an error due to fatigue. This can make your point more relatable and memorable. You could also propose a rotation system where everyone gets a short break during long shifts. Explain how this can improve overall team performance and reduce errors, making it beneficial for both staff and patients. Check out this scenario in action here.

Calling in Sick

You wake up feeling terrible and call in sick. The guilt is real, especially in a field where being short-staffed can mean a world of difference for the animals in your care. But it’s made even worse when your manager is texting you and pressuring you to come in. Clearly state your symptoms and how they would affect your performance and potentially risk the health of your colleagues and the animals. Maintain firm boundaries, especially when you're unwell. And prepare to address any concerns with your manager when you return to work, emphasizing that coming in sick would risk spreading illness and affecting the team's overall health. It might be helpful to document your symptoms and include any doctor's notes if you have them. This documentation can be helpful if you need to escalate the issue to human resources. Check out this scenario here.

Client Accusations on Hectic Days

You're swamped with appointments, and a client lashes out, accusing the receptionist of not caring about their pet's well-being. The client is adamant about not taking their pet to an emergency vet, even though that's the only immediate option. Ugh, we've all been there, right? You're juggling a million things, and then you get hit with an accusation that cuts deep. You care so much about every pet that walks through that door, and it's emotionally draining when someone questions your dedication.

Before you even think about responding, take a deep breath and listen. Let the client vent. Sometimes, people just want to feel heard, and giving them that space can sometimes lower the emotional temperature of the conversation. If the situation isn't deescalating, it might be time to bring in a supervisor. Explain to the client that involving a third party can offer a fresh perspective and might help find a solution that works for everyone. Use the ‘Feel, Felt, Found’ method to say something like, "I understand how you feel. We've had clients who felt the same way, but they found that emergency care was the best immediate option for their pet's condition." It's a simple yet effective way to empathize with the client while guiding them toward a solution. Check out this scenario here.

Co-Worker Leaving Early

A co-worker finishes their shift but leaves before completing the closing duties, putting the burden on you to finish the work. I get it; it's frustrating to feel like you're picking up someone else's slack. It's not just about the extra work; it's about the principle. Have a one-on-one conversation with the colleague to address the issue. Use "I" statements to express how their actions impact you. For example, "I feel overwhelmed when the closing duties are left unfinished." You may also want to be prepared with specific examples to illustrate how their early departure affects the team and compromises patient care. Create a closing duties checklist that everyone can refer to. This ensures that all tasks are accounted for and can be checked off before anyone leaves for the day. If this doesn’t help, suggest a team meeting to discuss and finalize the checklist, making it a collective effort. Present three key reasons why sharing closing duties is crucial: it ensures fairness, maintains team morale, and upholds the standard of patient care. Check out this scenario here.

Advocating for Patients

You mention a special spray that prevents hair tearing during procedures, but the doctor dismisses it as unnecessary. It's tough when you're trying to advocate for better patient care and hit a wall. It can make you question whether your input is valued at all. Ask the doctor how they currently handle the issue the spray would solve. This can lead them to consider the benefits of your suggestion without feeling attacked. Try presenting evidence of the spray's effectiveness and long-term benefits for patient care and gather testimonials or case studies that demonstrate its value in a clinical setting. Create a presentation or one-pager that summarizes the benefits and evidence, making it easy for the doctor to digest the information. You may use the “rule of threes” to present three key benefits of using the spray: it's more humane for the animals, it speeds up recovery, and it can improve client satisfaction. Finally, offer to do a cost-benefit analysis comparing the price of the spray to the potential benefits, like increased client satisfaction and fewer complications.

Asking for a Raise

You've been at the clinic for several years and feel it's time to discuss a salary adjustment. Money talks are always a bit awkward, right? But you know your worth and the value you bring to the clinic. Start with a positive statement about your experience at the clinic, followed by your request for a raise, and end with your commitment to the clinic's future success. Prepare a well-documented case highlighting your contributions, additional responsibilities, and market research on industry salary standards. Make it as easy as possible for your manager to advocate for yo by creating a portfolio of your accomplishments, complete with metrics and testimonials, to present during your discussion. If a direct raise isn't feasible, be prepared to negotiate other benefits like additional paid time off or educational stipends. Again, prepare ahead of time and make a list of alternative benefits you'd be willing to accept and be prepared to discuss these options.

Interested in learning more about negotiations in the workplace? Check out our wellness workshop with @negotiate.this here.

Sharing Information About Another Co-Worker

A co-worker consistently disregards clinic protocols, affecting patient care and team morale. It's a tricky spot to be in—you don't want to be a "tattletale," but you also can't ignore behavior that affects the team and the animals you're all there to care for. When discussing it with your manager, focus on the impact the behavior has on the team and patient care and use specific examples to avoid making it seem like a personal attack. Prepare a list of incidents, complete with dates and outcomes, to provide a comprehensive view of the ongoing issue. And if you're concerned about being labeled a "tattletale," consider addressing the issue anonymously through a suggestion box or during team meetings where general workplace behavior is discussed. If using a suggestion box, make sure to write down your concerns clearly and concisely to ensure they are understood and taken seriously.


  • Q: Isn't it better to avoid difficult conversations to maintain peace in the workplace?
    • A: Avoiding difficult conversations can lead to unresolved issues and increased tension over time. You might feel like you're keeping the peace at the time but more often than not, this just results in problems escalating / tensions rising.
  • Q: How can I ensure that the other person is open to having a difficult conversation?
    • A: While you can't control someone else's openness, setting a respectful tone and choosing the right time and place can help. Difficult conversations can be uncomfortable for everyone so sometimes acknowledging that is helpful and can help the other person lower their guard and be more open.
  • Q: What if the difficult conversation doesn't go as planned?
    • A: It's important to be flexible and open to follow-up conversations. Sometimes issues require more than one discussion to be fully resolved. And unfortunately not every difficult conversation has a positive end result. It's important to know when it's time to walk away or move on completely.

Navigating difficult conversations is an essential skill in veterinary medicine, not only with our clients but with our managers, co-workers, and peers. While these discussions are often challenging, they are also opportunities for growth, both personally and professionally. By approaching them with preparation, empathy, and effective communication strategies, you can turn potential conflicts into constructive dialogues.

We hope you found this blog post helpful! Share it with the veterinary professionals in your life.

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