Navigating the Difficult Conversation Trifecta
By: Rachel Teichberg, CVPM
I’ve watched this scene a thousand times… Dorothy and the gang anxiously making their way through the forest chanting “lions, and tigers and bears, oh my!” As they quickly skip their way along the yellow brick road, they eventually meet their lion. In practice, you come face to face with a lion daily, except yours is in the shape of difficult conversations.
All day long you have conversations with your coworkers. You chit-chat about the weekend, discuss plans for the day, ask for help with lab work, direct someone to pick up line three, follow up on those retirement party plans, and debrief about cases. All of this conversation flows seamlessly until you have a critique, a suggestion, or a problem. Just like that, communication comes to a grinding halt as you try to avoid having what you believe will be an awkward or emotional conversation.
Each time you avoid feedback, coaching, and conflict conversations you may feel like you’ve gained something in the short-term by saving yourself from feeling uncomfortable (as many people jump through incredible hoops to avoid). In the long-term, the effects of avoidance will present as low morale, low performance, low efficiency, and high turnover. All of those factors will directly affect your bottom line.
Feedback, coaching, and conflict are, in fact, three separate types of conversations and tools which can be approached in different ways to improve performance in your practice. Feedback conversations should occur between all team members, regardless of their place on the organizational chart, and are focused only on things that were witnessed by the person giving the feedback. That’s right, no triangulated communication, no gossiping, no running to the manager.
The goal of feedback is to address or correct a behavior by expressing how it made you feel and the impact it had. Don’t forget, feedback does not only mean critique. You can and should give feedback and vocalize appreciation for all of the wonderful behaviors you witness as well. To give feedback, three great conversation starters are “I noticed”, “I wonder” and “I wish”. Before giving the feedback ask yourself “is this kind?” “Is this specific? And “is this helpful”? These conversations will build stronger relationships built on honesty and trust.
Coaching is another critical conversation as this is a great way for owners and managers to develop their team. The goal of a coaching conversation is to help someone grow in their role or abilities, learn something new, or explore a type of change. Essentially, its purpose is to bridge the gap between where a team member is today, and where they need to be. Coaching conversations are delivered by those in roles where they have more experience, expertise, or training in a given area. Coaching other people to develop their skills requires a genuine interest in your teammates’ future and desire to see them excel. The veterinary industry is currently experiencing an extremely low unemployment rate, meaning your best candidates are already working in your practice! Identify opportunities to develop your employees to finesse and expand their existing skills to increase their efficiency and engagement with their work.
Conflict conversations are likely the most neglected of all in a practice. For many, conflict is scary, and your body literally reacts as if you just ran into a wild tiger. You sweat, your heart races, and your breathing speeds up as you instinctively prepare for flight or fight. This is not OK. Conflict is inevitable and something we have to start getting more comfortable with.
According to the Mediation Training Institute at Eckerd College, “conflict is any situation in which people have apparently incompatible opinions, goals, interests, principles or feelings.” Now that it’s been defined, I bet you’re thinking about someone in your practice with whom you have some unresolved conflict. Unfortunately, a lot of practices keep disengaged team members for years simply to save themselves from an uncomfortable conversation.
The first way to overcome a fear of conflict is to change the paradigm from “us against each other” to “us against the problem”. By making that small change, we’re able to move out of personalities, emotions and judgement and focus on the business problems at hand. There are simple steps to conduct a conflict conversation:
1. Explain the problem as you see it
2. Describe the impact
4. Agree on the problem to be solved
5. Explore potential solutions
6. Agree on an action plan
7. Set a date to follow-up
When conflict goes unresolved it distracts us from the job at hand and can lead to toxic work environments. Working through conflict as it arises will keep team members focused on the most important things: your clients and patients.
What’s important to remember about Dorothy’s journey through the forest is that once they met the lion and faced their fears, they realized there wasn’t much to be scared about after all. In fact, all they really needed to find was courage. Same goes for you! These conversations may feel intimidating but as you work through them, you’ll feel a paradigm shift viewing difficult conversations as an opportunity. Communicate with your team and let them know you’ll be engaging in more direct communication and what you expect from them. As you lean into the discomfort through feedback, coaching, and conflict conversations you will begin to see a change in your team dynamics as you build deeper, more meaningful relationships.
Rachel Teichberg, CVPM is a Senior Practice Coach with Veterinary Growth Partners. She facilitates both emotional intelligence and conflict resolution trainings at national and international industry conferences. She most recently attended the Certified Trainer in Workplace Resolution program through MTI at Eckerd College and is pending certification as a Mediator. If you are interested in practice coaching or more conflict training for you or your team, please contact Rachel directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.