Business Briefs: Handling the Difficult Client

When handling difficult clients, veterinarians need to recognize their role in rewarding manipulative behavior and so they can defuse it.
Young doctor woman wearing medical uniform over isolated background. Doing time out gesture with hands, frustrated and serious face. Handling the difficult clients requires vets to self-reflect.
When handling difficult clients, veterinarians need to recognize their role in rewarding manipulative behavior. iStock

The recent decline in veterinary well-being is often blamed on client behavior, especially since the pandemic. However, we need to recognize our role as veterinarians in rewarding manipulative behavior. Then, we can develop strategies to defuse it. Some clients use emotional blackmail, a dysfunctional form of manipulation, to place demands and/or make threats to get what they want. Social media is a frequent arena for emotional blackmail, bullying, and abuse from clients. This article will provide advice for veterinarians on handling the difficult client.

It helps to remember that difficult clients are often attempting to meet unmet needs, manage their fear, and maintain control. These needs could be acceptance (belonging), support (understanding, validation), security and/or safety (absence of fear), and/or certainty (control). In an emotionally fraught situation with a strong human-animal bond, clients could be struggling in this way. Empathy and kindness can often defuse these situations. However, clients will likely repeat the behavior, especially if they have been successful in using fear, obligation, and guilt in the past to get what they want. Veterinarians often fear the consequences of not meeting their clients’ demands. They feel obligated to act and guilty for not doing what they’ve been asked. Unfortunately, some clients quickly learn which tactics are most effective for manipulating their veterinarian. More specifically, they learn which emotional triggers work best. 

One of the things we have in common as human beings is that we frequently give in to this type of assault. This is because we experience relief when we comply. Our feelings of fear, obligation, and guilt recede. Unfortunately, compliance guarantees repetition. So, why do we give in? 

  • We are afraid of disappointing others
  • We are afraid of angering others
  • We are afraid others won’t like/love us or will leave us
  • We owe it to them
  • We feel they’ve done so much for us that we can’t say no
  • We feel it’s our duty
  • We’ll feel guilty if we don’t give in
  • We’ll feel selfish/unloving/greedy/mean
  • We won’t be a good person

Thinking about these situations before they happen can help. Understanding your triggers through self-reflection can help you plan how to handle the difficult client more effectively. First, you must recognize when you are getting hooked by your emotions. Remember to stay non-defensive and calm. Don’t use language that escalates the situation. Instead, stop and ask for time to think about the demand or complaint. Observe the facts by trying to be a neutral observer, and be curious about the client’s unmet needs that are probably present and could allow you to have empathy. Think about your options in responding. Use reflective listening and open-ended questions.

However, if there is shouting or aggression, you need a different strategy. Calmly indicate that the behavior is unacceptable. Set clear limits while acknowledging the other person is upset (“I can see you feel strongly”). Ask the person to leave if they are unable to have a calm conversation about their issue. “I feel uncomfortable when you speak so loudly. Would you commit to discussing your concerns in a quieter voice in the conference room? Otherwise, I’ll need to ask you to leave.” 

Conflict is not comfortable for most people. However, approaching it with empathy and curiosity can be remarkably effective in defusing anger and misunderstandings. Seeking to understand all the possible perspectives and admitting any responsibility that you have in the situation is often all that is needed to calm the client. By always asking yourself “What threat or unmet need could this person be feeling?”, you can muster more empathy and create the conditions for a more satisfactory resolution when handling the difficult client.

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