Rudeness in the Workplace: Equine Veterinary Practice

The AVMA's webinar about rudeness and discomfort in the workplace can offer you ways to de-escalate tense situations.
A female doctor is frustrated with a male doctor.
Displaced anger can lead to abusive behavior toward coworkers. iStock

Rage is a problem in all industries, especially in the era of COVID-19 and the consequences of rewriting the rules of human engagement. The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) sponsored a webinar about rudeness and discomfort in the workplace by Jen Brandt, PhD, director of Member Wellness and Diversity Initiatives at the AVMA. Brandt emphasized that as veterinarians, we are well-versed in subtle cues of animal behavior; similar cues are demonstrated by our human counterparts.

Animals and people have behavior thresholds where one emotional state crosses into another. Exceeding this threshold results in fight, flight, freeze or fidget behaviors. It is also possible to “trigger stack” through cumulative effects of annoyances. People function well within a window of tolerance before being faced with some form of arousal that alters behavior.

One human or animal coping mechanism is through redirection of aggression to something other than the trigger. In humans, such displaced anger is taken out on a less-threatening recipient, perhaps a member of the practice staff. Anger can lead to abusive behavior that is purposeful and meant to control, and it tends to escalate. This can take the form of cruelty, intimidation, guilt, manipulation, derogatory remarks or even physical attack and/or destructive behavior. An abusive person often blames others for their situation.

Thinking of companion animal behavior, aggression occurs from play, fear, confrontation, frustration, self-defense, or pain and discomfort. Human aggression stems from perceived injustice, unmet needs or misaligned expectations.

When handling pet aggression, it is counterproductive to inflict punishment, force interaction or take the behavior personally, said Brandt. It is best to disengage, remove yourself from the situation, provide distractions such as toys or treats, or have a time out.

The same protocol applies to human anger—don’t try to rationalize, explain, excuse or justify. Don’t become defensive. It is best to allow emotions to subside and to disengage rather than taking the bait. When possible, put feelings into words to have a chance at a rational discussion.

Preventing Confrontation

Prevention is preferable in all cases. Think about common trigger points with clients and avoid unnecessary provocation. Watch body language cues and address the environment and what is going on around you. The key to deconstructing rudeness or confrontation is to hone de-escalation skills. Brandt suggested:

  • Practice reflective listening—paraphrase the person’s comment and say it back to them.
  • It’s more helpful to focus on and label emotions, saying, for example, “I know you are worried, frustrated, upset…”
  • Discomfort on your part might compel a more hurried solution, which might actually create longer-term difficulty in resolving issues.
  • It is best to create a time-space barrier, saying, “I want to give this some thought and will call you back (at a specific time).” This allows cooler heads to prevail.
  • Recognize that not all situations are resolved to everyone’s satisfaction.

Non-verbal de-escalation is also important. Examples are maintaining eye contact, checking facial expressions, and standing tall with head up and shoulders back. Mirror calm and present an open body language with your arms at your sides and not crossed. Speak clearly and confidently and avoid interrupting an upset person. It can help to invite the person to sit down while you offer to take notes of his or her complaint.

The “Rule of Six” relies on making a list of at least six differentials about a person’s positive behavior by creating constructive stories about them and running these through your mind. Reflecting on this can empower you and smooth out your own emotional triggers and hot buttons.

Take-Home Message

Rudeness tends to be confined to a small number of people. Remembering that can help you to focus on all the nice people in your practice.

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