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When You Have To Deliver Bad News

At one time or another, we all have to deliver bad news to a client or maybe even terminate the employment of a staff member. Sometimes it is to report that a pet has died or sometimes it is discussing a bill. Some practices have had to deal with disputes involving custody of the animal or even situations where domestic violence overflows into the workplace. Whatever the case, you should recognize that there is the chance of an unexpected or violent response from anyone receiving information or news they are not going to like!

Here are some tips, adapted from the National Crisis Prevention Institute, to practice when you must deliver bad news to someone:

  • BE PREPARED - Don't get caught off guard by not having up to date information. The person may place the blame on you. You can accept responsibility when it’s warranted, but don’t take things personally.
  • BE OBJECTIVE - Give the person the news in a straightforward fashion. Don’t be judgmental or beat around the bush - you can express empathy without getting drawn into the problem.
  • USE ASSISTANCE - Always have another staff member present whenever possible. If the person becomes hostile, you have someone who can intervene or summon help.
  • PRESERVE THE OTHER PERSON’S DIGNITY - Many times a person becomes angry because they are embarrassed. To preserve their dignity, always talk to them in a private area but don’t seclude yourself.
  • LISTEN WITH EMPATHY - Try to imagine how the situation would feel in reverse. Sometimes listening is the best thing you can do. Try not to be judgmental of their feelings; they are real even if not based on rationality.
  • OFFER SOMETHING - Although you may not be able to give the person what they want, you can always offer something. Try to switch the focus away from what you can't do toward what you can do.

One can never predict how any person will react to bad news, so you must also prepare yourself should they get hostile. At a staff meeting, discuss likely scenarios where this could happen. You may even try a little role-playing to get some practice before you’re in that situation.

Certainly these suggestions take some practice, but they are skills definitely worth sharpening:

  1. Clarify messages. Listen to what is really being said. Ask questions like “What would you like us to do to solve this problem?” Sometimes, their expectations will be very reasonable.
  2. Respect personal space. Stand at least 12 and preferably more than 3 feet from the person. Encroaching on personal space tends to arouse and escalate an individual.
  3.  Be aware of your body position. Standing eye-to-eye, toe-to-toe with the person sends a challenging message. Standing back and at an angle off to the side is less likely to escalate the individual.
  4. Permit verbal venting when possible. Allow the person to release energy by venting verbally.
  5. Set and enforce reasonable limits. If the individual becomes belligerent, or disruptive, let them know clearly and concisely that you will not tolerate abusive behavior and will summon police if necessary.
  6. Avoid overreacting. Remain calm, rational, and professional. How you and the rest of the staff responds to their behavior will directly affect the person’s next move.
  7. Use physical force ONLY as a defense. Use the least restrictive method of intervention possible while waiting for the police. Employing physical techniques on an individual who is only acting out verbally can escalate the situation.
  8.  Ignore personal challenges. When the client challenges your position, training, policy, etc..., redirect the individual's attention to resolution of the issue at hand. Answering questions in “defense” of a policy often makes the situation worse.
  9.  Keep your nonverbal cues non-threatening. Be aware of your body language, movement, and tone of voice. The more an individual loses control the less he listens to your actual words. More attention is paid to your nonverbal cues.

Of course, if you believe that you are in personal danger, don’t hesitate to call the police. After a good faith attempt at resolution, if an abusive or hostile person still does not calm down, you should firmly, but respectfully tell them to leave the clinic with a promise that you will resolve the problem when all parties have had a chance to calm down. If they still refuse, call the police for help.

Remember, one of the first reactions to trauma or catastrophic news is denial that it happened followed by anger. You don’t have to be a psychologist to recognize that many confrontations can be resolved with a “cooling off” period.

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Did You Know...?

In 2014, a 57 year old Washington man stabbed a veterinarian at the practice where his cat passed away then went to another practice which had nothing to do with the cat and stabbed veterinary assistant with a kitchen knife.