Straighten out convoluted conversations in your practice

Are you losing control of your staff and not sure what to do? The answer: Step out of triangulated discussions with team members and teach them to communicate with each other—or find a new practice.
Apr 01, 2010

You aren't a traffic cop. You're not a referee or a nursery school teacher. But there may be times at your practice when you feel like you're all of these things and more, especially if team members constantly come to you to solve their problems with their peers. Whether it's an associate and a technician who engage in character assassination behind each other's backs or a couple of receptionists whose squabbles create a frosty front desk atmosphere, this behavior has to end. And it can end in one of two ways: team members learn to communicate or they move on.

Unfortunately, in many practices the approach involves you—the doctor or the manager—sitting down with the warring parties and playing parent to a couple of adults who act more like siblings than coworkers. Let's talk about what triangulated conversations are and how to halt them in your practice.


To tackle tough conversations in practice, you need to get intense.* Intense conversations are those in which you come out from behind your "nice person" (read: "conflict-averse") facade and make the discussion real. The goal of an intense conversation is to get reality on the table where you can deal with it, and these conversations are marked by passion, authenticity, and integrity. Talk may be cheap, but avoiding a real conversation costs you more in the end.

Let's get this straight: Intense conversations do not involve attacking another person or destroying his or her self-esteem. You engage others in intense conversations to make things more clear and provide the psychological impetus for change.

Business is basically an ongoing conversation. And if you refuse to confront issues as they arise in that conversation, you shouldn't be managing a veterinary practice. But keep in mind that these skills can be learned—they don't come naturally to many people, especially in the veterinary profession. Even the meekest person can become a black-belt conversationalist with the determination and willingness to learn. After all, confrontation doesn't mean war. It means stating what you need and what you want and resolving differences with other people.

To get started, let's look at four different models of conversation that must be the go-to tools for your practice. They are:

1. Group conversations. In these discussions, two employees examine a situation without either one having a meltdown. This conversation should be frictionless—for example, a receptionist and a technician talk about a disagreement without laying blame, getting personal, or becoming emotional. Encourage employees to engage in these conversations on their own.

2. Behavior-related coaching conversations. Your goal in a coaching conversation is to improve a team member's understanding of his or her own behavior and motivate that person to change. In coaching conversations, you look to improve professional development, advance projects, or accelerate results.

3. Delegation conversations. In these conversations, you add to a team member's responsibilities and raise the level of his or her personal accountability. As a manager, you should always be looking for ways to push decision-making down to the lowest possible level, so you should be having these conversations frequently.

4. Clarifying conversations. While you need to put up with an employee's personality at work, no matter what it is, you don't have to put up with behavior. So when behavior becomes an issue, you engage the team member to successfully resolve the problem. Clarifying conversations focus on attitude, performance, or personal conduct. Your goals are to name and address the top challenges, provoke learning, and enrich the relationship. (It's true! Haven't you experienced a deeper connection with someone after he or she called you on your crap? Healthy confrontation is a relationship builder.)

*The author acknowledges Susan Scott and her book Fierce Conversations: Achieving Success at Work and in Life One Conversation at a Time as the source of many of the ideas in this article.