How to manage conflict in the vet practice

Two scenarios, five conflict management styles

How do you deal with conflict, Dear Reader? Do you pretend it never happened? Bully your opponent into submission? Retreat sheepishly after hearing the other side’s position?

We all have different ways of dealing with conflict, and, in turn, we experience various outcomes: good, bad and disastrous. Although there is no clear-cut solution to all difficult interactions, some conflict styles result in more pleasant resolutions. According to Professor Michael Dues,1 a specialist in conflict management at the University of Arizona, there are five styles to use when dealing with conflict.

To illustrate each style, I will use two examples: one with a client and one with a veterinary technician. Here are my working scenarios.

Scenario 1: Ms. Smith arrives at the hospital to pick Buster up after he spent the day to be neutered, vaccinated and get a nail trim. Ms. Smith is extremely upset because Buster’s nails have not been trimmed, despite her request and the fact that she prepaid for it to be done. The issue is that Buster will not accept a nail trim without heavy-duty sedation.

Scenario 2: Technician Samantha anesthetizes a patient and preps him for surgery. She takes the preop radiographs and moves her patient directly into surgery, leaving the X-ray room a complete mess—fur everywhere, catheter remnants, lube. You name it, it’s on the X-ray table. The next tech walks in with her patient, only to find the room unusable.

How Do You Resolve Conflict?


Avoiding a problem means it’s never addressed; therefore, a solution is never reached. Even though this can be considered a low-stress interaction, there are no winners here. The individual who was made aware of the conflict just pretends it does not exist and there is no cooperation between parties. The end result is a lose-lose situation.

Scenario 1: The tech alerts the doctor on staff about the missed nail trim after Mrs. Smith complained at the front desk. The doctor’s response is, “That procedure can’t be done while Buster is awake. He’s not even my patient. Plus, my schedule is full for tonight, so someone will have to deal with it tomorrow.”

Choosing avoidance may seem like the easiest solution, but it really isn’t resolving anything and can sometimes worsen the situation.

Scenario 2: The veterinary technician who found the mess makes the previous tech aware of the inconvenience. The tech who created the situation says that she was too busy to clean up. She is now in surgery to help the doctor, so there is nothing she can do.


Competition is very selfish and one-sided. There’s little to no concern for the other party involved: I get what I want at the expense of someone else; I win, you lose. This approach may reach a resolution, unlike avoidance, but it is definitely not the ideal way to handle things.

Scenario 1: Ms. Smith has noticed that the nail trim has not been done, and the doctor on staff has been alerted. This time the doctor’s response is, “That patient’s nails can’t be clipped while he’s awake, and my schedule is full. Tell her that if she had trained her dog properly, this wouldn’t be a problem. We will have to do it the next time we sedate him for something.”

Competition might seem like a good approach in the heat of the moment. It may feel like a victory, but it is very likely to alienate the client.

Scenario 2: The veterinary technician who left the X-ray room disheveled was alerted. The response is, “Well, I’m busy; someone who isn’t doing anything should clean it. If everyone knew how to monitor anesthesia, I could have cleaned it, but it’s not my problem anymore; I’m stuck in the OR with the doctor.”


In a compromise situation, one party decides to give something up and automatically assumes that both parties will meet in the middle. The hope is there will be equal sacrifice. There is no real loser, but there is no clear winner either.

Scenario 1: Ms. Smith has noticed that the nail trim has not been done, and the doctor on staff has been alerted. Buster needs sedation. In order to try and make the client happy, the doctor compromises by offering to sedate Buster and to split the cost with the client.

Scenario 2: The veterinary technician is made aware of the mess she left behind. This time, she tries to compromise. “Sorry about the mess. I can clean it up after I’m done in surgery.” It’s a step in the right direction, but, clearly, a neat X-ray room is needed right away.


When accommodation is your style, you are highly concerned for others but show little concern for yourself. Here, you only take care the other individual’s needs, which often creates more problems for yourself. Many times, the original problem is not addressed adequately, if at all. You lose; they win.

Scenario 1: Ms. Smith has noticed that the nail trim has not been done, and the doctor on staff has been alerted. This time, the doctor offers to sedate Buster and perform the nail trim at no charge. In addition, he asks a receptionist to gives the client a voucher for a large bag of premium brand dog food. This should make the client happy, but it’s a costly way of doing business.

Scenario 2: This time, the guilty technician says, “I’m sorry; I will clean it up right now.”

Although this seems to be a good response, it really isn’t. This will get the X-ray cleaned up immediately, but is only accommodating, and the “messy” tech just left her patient under anesthesia unsupervised.


Collaboration happens when both sides work together to reach a solution. Both parties are highly concerned and work together. This ideal approach doesn’t work all the time because you can’t always get the other party to collaborate. Clearly, it’s something to strive for.

Scenario 1: Ms. Smith has noticed that the nail trim has not been done, and the doctor on staff has been alerted. The doctor apologizes. He leads the client into an exam room. He offers weekly appointments (at no charge) to go over Fear Free™ handling and low-stress nail trim techniques so that Buster no longer requires sedation, and it eventually can be done at home. This is a true win-win for all parties involved, including the patient.

Scenario 2: This time, the veterinary technician’s response is, “I have an idea. Can you please put your patient back in a cage for a moment and monitor my anesthesia patient? I’ll clean up the X-ray room, and then we will switch back.”

This is a true win-win situation. There is no yelling, no animosity about the mess, and all patients involved are properly cared for.

Wise people don’t stick to one style; the better choice often depends on the situation. Are you negotiating a raise in the midst of a tough economy? Trying to convince a sales rep to give you a refund? Refinancing your house?

There is a time and a place for each conflict management style, but, in general, we all should strive for collaboration, which is another way to say win-win.


  1. Loosely inspired by “The Art of Conflict Management” by Professor Michael Dues. The Great Courses, Chantilly, Va.

Dr. Phil Zeltzman is a board-certified veterinary surgeon and serial entrepreneur. You may visit his website or follow him at AJ Debiasse, a technician in Stroudsburg, Pa., contributed to this article.

Originally published in the April 2017 issue of Veterinary Practice News. Did you enjoy this article? Then subscribe today! 

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