Dealing with tricky situations

Sometimes it will be necessary to dig yourself out of a hole when speaking with an emotive client

27 September 2018, at 2:42p.m.

The Duke of Wellington is alleged to have said that the Battle of Waterloo was “won on the playing fields of Eton”. I write this after England’s departure from the World Cup, following defeat by Croatia – a day when the Duke’s sentiments were reiterated by a match commentator. He stated that England’s early goal was the product of many hours of practice, not just dreamt up on the spot.

The same could very much be said of one’s success, or otherwise, in the consulting room. Having the confidence and resilience to handle clients’ varied issues and concerns every 10 to 15 minutes, keeping to time and leaving that room stress-free after seeing perhaps 18 clients over three hours, is no mean feat.

We all remember those first days in practice. Gone were the days when there was somebody else making the decisions; you were “it” – the vet in charge! Depending on where you did your EMS, you will be to some degree unconsciously incompetent. Another definition of EMS is “seeing practice”; if it’s more that and you haven’t had opportunity to conduct consultations, you may have remained unconsciously incompetent.

When most people first enter practice, there is a sudden realisation of being incompetent; that’s when you’re consciously incompetent. Everything then tends to be by-the-book, step-by-step, until you become consciously competent; then, with practice, routine procedures become easier, steps become second nature and you’re suddenly unconsciously competent. That’s when things can go horribly wrong and you can head down that slippery slope to becoming unconsciously incompetent again!

Commentators spoke about a momentary lapse of concentration leading to Croatia’s winning goal. The England team may not have conceded that goal, had that momentary lapse not happened at a time when they were tiring and under pressure. That’s when mistakes tend to be made and you get punished! Good defenders identify what’s wrong and deal with it quickly.

You will inevitably sometimes find yourself in very tricky situations – we regularly deal with very emotive situations and clients. Given a heightened situation, that word or phrase that would normally not cause any issues may suddenly cause offence. How we deal with those situations tests our communication skills.

A client may verbalise an offence or it may be seen in their body language. You need to acknowledge what you have done, in terms of causing the upset; genuine empathy never goes amiss. You may need to enquire what it is you said or did that caused offence. “I’m very sorry, but I appear to have really upset you. Please tell me what it is I’ve done.” When empathising, it’s always best to overstate what you perceive the level of emotion involved to be. Once you have sensed and acknowledged the client’s emotion, they’ll have no need to continue to express it.

The other area individuals are reluctant to approach is offering apology. It need not be an admission of liability, and clients often cite it as something that, had it been expressed, would have prevented them from registering a complaint. Apologising for the situation you find yourselves in, or for the fact that the outcome fell short of what was expected, is not an admission of liability. Adding “it was all my fault”, however, is best avoided, and could be taken as that admission of liability we all want to avoid.

Although retired from practice, Geoff Little is still actively involved in the profession. His positions within the VDS Training Team and as president of Vetlife bring him into close contact with practice team members of various ages and positions.

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