Courageous conversations: Respond, don’t react

Instead of reacting when a conflict occurs, practice productive ways to respond to sensitive conversations

Some would argue not all communication is created equal. Let’s face it—it’s easier to bring good news to managers or veterinarians than to voice concerns or address problems in the clinic setting.

It’s also true that avoiding difficult conversations does not work. Rather than reacting when a conflict occurs, learn productive ways to respond to sensitive conversations with coworkers, management, and/or clients. This, in turn, will lead to higher job satisfaction, as you won’t be weighed down with conflict. Be bold, be bright, be courageous. You may believe “tiptoeing around” to avoid conflict will make it go away. Think again. Not addressing issues makes the conflict worse. Disputes are an inevitable part of life. Workplaces that accept differences, understand attitudes, and encourage open dialogue offer safe environments to bring conflict to light.

You can lead through example by becoming proficient in conflict resolution. Understanding what you are avoiding is a big first step in the right direction.

Ask yourself these thought-provoking questions:

  • What conversations am I not having?
  • Why? What excuses am I giving?
  • What is my fear about having these conversations?

There are myriad tips for “sharpening your saw” when it comes to communication skills. The ones addressed in this article include the use of empathy statements, ideas in managing conflict, creating a framework for calmer conversations, and offering sincere apologies. Let’s take a closer look at how you can tackle those courageous conversations.

Empathy statements

Researchers at the University of Calgary’s Faculty of Veterinary Medicine in Canada note that empathy is the ability to recognize the emotions of another person while maintaining one’s own perspective.1

Another way to define it is having a comparable experience as another person and feeling the similar pain, anguish, joy, and exuberance as they did. In essence, you are connecting with the other person in that moment.

For example: If you lost a favorite pet and there was a family in the exam room that recently euthanized their beloved dog, you would likely empathize with them.

However, this definition may not be enough when confronting someone in a difficult situation. This requires more than just the connection of feelings—it’s also being able to convey this back to the person.

There are three components for veterinary team members to consider and understand in a clinical setting.1

1) The ability to understand the client’s perspective, including their emotions, thoughts, beliefs, and circumstances

2) The ability to communicate that understanding back to the client

3) The ability to act on that understanding in ways that are helpful for the patient and/or client.

These components can be used for all challenging conversations by replacing “client” with the name of the person with whom you’re having a conflict. This way, you not only understand what the person is feeling, but you seek to communicate it back and then find solutions for an outcome.

The confusion lies with sympathy, which is defined as feelings of pity or sorrow for another person’s misfortune.

For example: If your spouse has never served in a war zone, you cannot empathize with the husband or wife of a soldier who died in combat. However, you could sympathize.

Brené Brown’s acclaimed video summarizes the difference between empathy and sympathy in a very succinct and easily understood way.2 One of her main points is that “empathy is feeling with people.”

So how can you convey empathy when having a challenging conversation? Here are a few suggested phrases:3

  • I’d feel the same way you do in your situation.
  • No wonder you’re upset/angry/sad, etc.
  • That would make me angry (state the appropriate emotion), too.
  • I agree with most of what you are saying.
  • I think I understand. What you’re feeling is…
  • Tell me what you see as alternatives.

Challenge yourself to not just think of your side of the conflict, but to also be empathetic with the other person. Listen to his/her side of the story; reflect on the experience, see how you can relate to it and add your empathetic statements; and then listen again.

Tips for managing conflict

There is no easy way to manage conflict. However, start by first looking within, having self-awareness, and then responding to the situation.

While there are many ideas for managing a conflict,5 here are six tips you may consider:

1) Pick your battles and ask yourself, “Is this really worth the time and energy?” If the answer is no, you have to let it go.

2) Anticipate conflict—spot the symptoms and redirect.

3) Be sure to use neutral language—be sincere and respectful. Use “I” statements.

4) Strive to practice preventive maintenance by offering opportunities to discuss topics of concern before they become a conflict.

5) Practice active listening—listen to understand, rather than only to respond.

6) Leverage yourself—hold yourself accountable for your actions and being a part of the solution to the conflict.

A framework for calm convos

When you are caught up in an emotionally charged interaction, how can you maintain composure and move forward? By learning and practicing a brief formula for responding to any situation, it will help you think on your feet and reply appropriately.

Conflict resolution expert Bill Eddy coined the term “BIFF,” which stands for brief, informative, friendly, and firm.6

1) Make your response brief, which translates to one or two sentences. The more you talk, the worse things can get.

2) Limit your response to information. Leave out any assumptions, defensiveness, opinions, or intentions. Information is neutral. While you may briefly explain something that happened, focus on the future and what will happen.

3) Create a friendly tone. Here are a few friendly and brief phrases that work in any situation:

  • “I want to resolve this.”
  • “I know we both want what is best.”
  • “I hope we can work together on this.”

4) Finally, be firm. That means being clear about boundaries, limits, and rules. Do so without letting yourself creep into scolding. Just state the facts and potential outcomes (not threats, but facts about what might happen).

Dos and don’ts

In addition to the BIFF response, focusing on the correct aspects of a conflict will lead to a better outcome. While “Go to h#@&” and other venting remarks are momentarily cleansing, you have more power over the outcome if you avoid such statements. Consider also the following:

  • Don’t tell someone they are wrong. Do remember your goal is not to be “right.”
  • Don’t defend yourself. Do state facts about what was done or what happened.
  • Don’t say anything about intention. Do talk about impact.
  • Don’t criticize. Do give information.
  • Don’t focus on the past. Do focus on the future.

If you apologize, do it right

Most of the time, apologies make things better, when done appropriately. Knowing how to apologize—and when—can repair damage in a relationship. However, if you don’t know how to apologize sincerely, you can actually make things worse.7

Sincere apologizing makes situations better by helping the other person move from past resentments to working with you in the future. Apologizing does not make you weak. Rather, it gives you more power by letting go of the mistake.

A true apology makes an impact. The apologizer must be sincere, focusing on the choice of words, tone of voice, body language, and eye contact.

A successful apology has occurred when the wounded person “relinquishes” the moral advantage. Don’t pursue forgiveness; it comes if or when the person is ready.

The four parts of a true apology are:

1) Confession: I did it and I’m taking responsibility.

2) I feel bad: Express sorrow or regret, and allow the other person to respond.

3) Repentance: I won’t do it again; I’m changing [something] to keep this from happening in the future.

4) Justice: Making amends. How can I make this right?

Follow the apology with a long pause. Too often, an apology is not heard because it is quickly followed by a bunch of other words. Allow the other person to respond before the conversation continues.

An apology can be made worse if excuses or justifications are made. Consider what you are really apologizing for and focus on that alone. Words that are ineffective for a true apology include:

  • It isn’t my fault.
  • I didn’t do it.
  • I did it, but it’s not so bad.
  • I did it, and it was bad, but I have an explanation.

Practice a true apology. Examples may include:

  • I apologize for doing that.
  • I feel badly.
  • I am evaluating how it happened so I can prevent it in the future.
  • What can I do to make it right?

You’ve got this

Having tips to face difficult conversations in a courageous way will help you better deal with conflict. After all, avoidance will not make the situation better. By using empathy statements, identifying tips in conflict management, constructing calmer conversations, and apologizing when appropriate, you put yourself in a position to respond, and not react, in conflict situations.

However, these ideas don’t always come naturally. Communication, including conflict and resolution skills, is a lifelong learning pursuit. Practice does make uncomfortable conversations easier. Consider role-playing with other team members (even though they will roll their eyes and whine). This enhances everyone’s ability to tackle tough conversations.

When conflict can be addressed and dealt with in a positive way, it increases job satisfaction for all.

And remember, be bold, be bright, and be courageous.

Rebecca Rose, CVT, certified career coach, founder, and president at CATALYST Veterinary Professional Coaches, has a diverse background in the veterinary community. She has worked in and managed clinics, collaborates with industry partners, and facilitates engaging team workshops. Rose’s enthusiasm for professional development in veterinary medicine is contagious, as she encourages and supports veterinary teams in reaching their highest potential. She can be reached via


1 Communicating Empathy in Veterinary Medicine. Jantina McMurray, DVM, and Søren Boysen, DVM, DACVECC. April 2017.

2 Brené Brown on Empathy. RSA Shorts Video.

3 44 empathy statements that will make you a great listener. April Eldemire LMFT. Psychology Today. July 10, 2019.

4 Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. Steve Covey. Habit 5 = “Seek first to understand, then be understood.”

5 Six Steps to Managing Conflict,

6 BIFF: Quick Responses to High-Conflict People, Their Personal Attacks, Hostile Email and Social Media Meltdowns. Bill Eddy. High Conflict Institute.

7 How to Apologize More Sincerely. Elizabeth Scott, MS. Very Well Mind. Sept 10, 2019.

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