Two women having a disagreement

Do you want to eliminate pointless arguing in your practice and its toxic effects on your team? Veterinary life is stressful enough as it is without negativity coming from within.

Everyone wants a more positive environment that retains great employees, but practically speaking, how do we get there? Turning arguments and complaints into constructive team-building conversations will make a massive impact on the culture in your practice. First, let’s get a basic starting point squared away: Lose your attachment to being “right.” This is the number one thing that destroys 99% of what could otherwise have been a constructive discussion. This is also the main issue I coach people to overcome.

Everyone wants to be seen and understood just as much as you do. At the end of the day, ask yourself this question, “Would I rather ‘win’ this argument, or would I rather foster a team that finds solutions through collaboration?” When you place a bigger priority on your own point, you may win the battle, but your relationship with your team loses. It’s not easy to put your ego aside, but if someone told you being a practice leader was easy, they lied. Let’s dig into navigating disagreements so that everyone benefits.

First, fully and accurately mirror the person that is upset.

Mirroring is the process of repeating everything the other person said, word for word, as closely as you can remember. This is a challenge for most people because our instinct is to defend our position. Instead of intently listening, you may be thinking of the next thing you want to say. However, it is worthwhile to suspend your comeback.

What is the goal of ensuring your “adversary” feels understood? Well, let’s explore how it feels when you feel understood by others.

First, isn’t it completely disarming? In a moment of disagreement, if someone was to look at you and mirror exactly what you are thinking and feeling instead of continuing to explain their own point, how would that change your reaction? For example, if someone said, “So, I hear that you feel I am undermining you when I [insert issue here] and you would appreciate it if I collaborated with you first.” You wouldn’t just feel understood, you would feel like the other person truly cares about what you are experiencing, as well. They aren’t just coming back at you with why they did it in the first place or trying to defend and explain themselves. They are stopping and really investing in where you are coming from. Their stock would immediately go up in your eyes. They are paying attention and you feel truly heard.

Everyone deserves to be heard, seen, and understood in their workplace. If you want someone to look at you like your opinion matters, you must first ensure that they feel heard and understood. They will be interested in what you have to say, and ideas you have to offer.

Next, acknowledge the validity of everything you just repeated.

This step is vital, even if you don’t agree with their perspective. The point isn’t to determine who is right and who is wrong. The point is that you are showing you care about their perception regardless of your own. Whatever happens, don’t say “I am sorry you took it that way.” That statement translates to “I am sorry you’re crazy and completely got this all wrong.” You will instantly make the other person dig in their heels and tune you out. Properly validating someone sounds something like this: “It makes sense to me that you feel I am undermining you when I [do something] without collaborating with you first. I imagine you feel this way because you take your responsibilities very seriously and you work very hard at your job.”

This ensures that the other person knows that you understand them, and it further helps to win them over. You must bring down their defenses, so they want to understand you as much as they want to be understood. Believe it or not, you will benefit by gaining new insight into what they experience and what is important to them. It will only serve you as a team member to have more thorough knowledge of what makes your coworkers tick.

Now the hard part: personal accountability

Oftentimes, there is truth in what the other person is sharing with you. Be honest with yourself and ask, “Would you rather be right, or would you rather build a better team and build your emotional intelligence?” You must be willing to hear that there is something for you to do differently in the future, regardless of how noble your intentions. It doesn’t mean that you are 100% wrong, and the other person is 100% right, but again, developing a team isn’t about wrong vs right. It’s about learning about each other while you work towards a common goal: practicing the best healthcare possible.

You should also expect accountability from the other person. Both sides should take responsibility for what they could have done differently, which is a critical step. Afterall, the most important thing is working towards and accomplishing your common goals, not winning an argument. Establish a plan to set you both up to be successful in the future. A good plan is one that you both agree to and one that requires both of you to behave differently in the future. This can be as simple as: “Next time I need to make this kind of a decision, I will…” or “I would like to ask you to commit to…”

This may sound like common sense, but the hard part is truly believing in your heart that the other person matters as much as you do. If it was easy, then every argument or disagreement happening in your practice would be smooth and productive. I am guessing that isn’t the case. The process that is outlined here will help you strategically navigate past the emotional pitfalls that are tripping you up and keep you and your whole team focused on the bigger picture of creating a positive practice environment.

Kristine McCormick, CVPM, SHRM-SCP, is current Hospital Manager and previous co-owner of Animal Hospital at Baldwin Park and Integrative Animal Hospital of Central Florida.