How will you tell her?

How will you tell her?

It's never easy to be the bearer of bad tidings. But you can ease the hurt clients feel with a sensitive approach. Here's what you need to know to break bad news gently.
Jan 01, 2008

Sparky, a seemingly healthy patient scheduled to go home, is lying cool and lifeless in a pool of her own secretions. This chilling discovery melts your cheerful demeanor—and your prospect for a happy, productive morning. Once a source of reciprocal joy and hope, this pet has become an instrument of misery. And guess who's giving Sparky's owner the bad news?

Mr. Pit takes up familiar residence in your stomach. You'll be distracted until the conversation is behind you, but you dread its awkward, painful onset. So how will you deliver the message? The look-em-in-the-eye, tell-it-to-em-straight approach may look good in Westerns. But in real life, it might send an unsuspecting pet owner into an emotional free fall.

My brother tells of a friend who, after returning from vacation, took his small children to retrieve their dog that was boarded at their veterinary practice. The veterinarian dis­appeared to the back of the practice and returned carrying the lifeless body of their pet that had died unexpectedly. While the doctor delivered the necessary information, it was an abrupt and painful way to share it—especially for the children.

Whether you're telling clients the groomer inadvertently trimmed their pet's fur too short, describing a mis­understanding about appointment times, explaining the doctor they want to see is unavailable, or giving biopsy results with a dire prognosis, the same thoughtful communication ideas apply.

1. Set the stage

Do not let bad news wreck your day
When you prepare clients for alternative outcomes, they're less likely to feel shocked or betrayed by bad results. So when clients ask, "You won't let my pet die, will you?" my answer's always the same: "I can't guarantee I'll live through the procedure." Although we often laugh together at the prospect of my dying while performing surgery on their pet, it's a statement of fact that puts the situation in perspective.

Then I tell them about our impressive patient-monitoring capabilities and record of success. But I remind them we're dealing with natural systems, so we don't have total control. Every year, people die from tonsillectomies and trips to the grocery store.

When it's necessary to deliver bad news, allow your clients time to embrace and digest the facts. Start the conversation by saying something serious occurred. They'll start to realize the scope of the problem by your tone and demeanor, which will prepare them for the details you'll provide.

2. Recognize the opportunity

Where there's crisis, there's oppor­tunity. Some of the most loyal clients have experienced a pet-related problem or challenge. When you express your concern and a desire to make amends, you can bond them more tightly to your practice than if nothing bad ever happened. And, you can show how much you care and what you're willing to do to rectify the situation.

3. Control the venue

If you can, give bad news face-to-face. E-mails and letters can be heartfelt, but they're one-dimensional and easily misunderstood. The absence of body language and voice inflections can lend different meanings to words than you intended. Rather, use written communication for follow-up once you've reached an understanding.