How to work out conflicts in the vet practice with mediation

Tips from Debra Vey Voda-Hamilton, ESQ. – Principal, full-time mediator, conflict coach and owner of Hamilton Law and Mediation

“We can work it out. Life is very short, and there’s no time for fussing and fighting, my friend.” — John Lennon and Paul McCartney

Find someone who has known and loved her pets, and someone who was a top breeder and exhibitor of dogs — in her case Irish setters and longhaired dachshunds. Find someone who has knowledge of the law. Find someone with wonderful communication skills and a passion for mediating conflict. You have found Debra Vey Voda-Hamilton, ESQ. – Principal, full-time mediator, conflict coach and owner of Hamilton Law and Mediation in Armonk, N.Y.

To know Hamilton is to know someone who is highly competent and caring and who is there to help pet owners and veterinarians.

I met this smart and compassionate woman several years ago when we were both leading workshops at a veterinary communication conference. We immediately realized that we shared a commitment to interpersonal communications skills, particularly listening empathetically.

While I was focusing on communication that can enhance client engagement and team interaction, Hamilton was focusing on communication skills that help individuals effectively resolve disputes over their animals.

After hearing Hamilton talk about the clients that she has served, I came to understand how the strong emotional bond that pet owners have with their animals can surface at times of conflict. After all, these animals are considered members of the family. A dispute related to the beloved animal can arise during a divorce when two loving pet owners have to decide who will care for their animal. Or it might be a conflict with a neighbor’s dog; e.g., a barking dog or a dog defecating on the lawn or frightening children in the neighborhood, or chasing a beloved cat. Maybe it’s between a veterinary staff person and the pet owner, both who care passionately about the best outcome for the animal.

Whatever the conflict, Hamilton endeavors to help people settle the conflict peacefully, without the time, cost and stress of litigation. She brings the parties in conflict together as a neutral mediator and helps them hear each other, acknowledge each other’s feelings and resolve their disputes. Her goal is to preserve the relationship of the parties while working toward the best outcome for the animal.

I found out that prior to offering her services as a mediator, Hamilton spent 30 years as a practicing litigator, receiving her law degree from Benjamin Cardozo Law School. She then trained with The Center for Understanding in Conflict and Mediation in Law and switched her focus from litigation to mediation.

Hamilton knows, what many have experienced, that decisions emerging from litigation often lack sensitivity to the parties involved. “Pets are considered property under the law,” Hamilton said, “and so to litigate these disagreements usually fails to yield a result either party desires.” Further, legal resolutions tend to be punitive and leave the parties involved with feelings of resentment toward one another. Litigation actually does not resolve the pain of conflict. Bad feelings between neighbors remain, as do suspicion and distrust.

Hamilton has described the proven techniques she has used for addressing conflict in a wonderful book entitled, Nipped in the Bud, Not in the Butt! — How to Use Mediation to Resolve Conflicts Over Animals.  I love the title.

After acquainting her readers with an understanding of mediation and its value, she openly shares her methodology.  It’s easy to understand but, oh so difficult, to implement. Hamilton helps her clients to understand the process by using metaphors, stories and her easy-to-remember formula. “People want to solve their disagreement in the best interest of the animal. Yet the often forget that goal when ego gets in the way, via their attorney and litigation. Mediation helps parties focus on a win/win solution, which is always the bet outcome for the pet,” Hamilton said.

She starts with a story about how firefighters instruct school children with what to do if they encounter their clothes on fire: STOP running, DROP to the floor, and ROLL around to put the flames out.  That is her signature formula:

  • STOP talking and listen
  • DROP the need to be right
  • Let what the other party says ROLL off your back.

Sounds easy, right? Yes, the formula is easy to understand, but, in the midst of an emotional conflict, you need a skilled mediator to help you STOP and listen. Hamilton can facilitate each of the parties in the conflict speaking in a way that the other can hear and those listening can assure the speaker that he or she has been heard. She helps the parties to appreciate the fact that stopping and listening does not mean agreeing, giving up or giving in. It only means that you are beginning to hear what the real issue is.

DROP the need to be right. That’s really tough when you “know” you are right.  Hamilton helps you put that aside and engage in a conversation in which both parties can learn from each other. “It is one of the hardest things to do as a profession, “ Hamilton shared, “and can be such a game changed in solving a disagreement.”

ROLL. As the mediator, Hamilton helps her clients to let things “roll” of their backs — specifically things that have been said that hurt. This may have happened if one party accuses the other of not caring for the animal or perhaps calling the professional competency of the other party into question. Hamilton helps the parties to actually hear and appreciate the negative feelings, instead of resisting and fighting back. This is the beginning of the possibility of understanding. “If you do not add fuel to the fire and let things roll off your back, apologies can be given because your words cannot come back to be used against you to continue the conflict,” Hamilton told me.

She said, “If you can acknowledge someone’s criticism respectfully you will get much further than if you keep banging them over the head with how wrong they are.”

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