Creating a Safe Space to Talk Within Veterinary Hospitals


    “We need to talk.”

    Nothing strikes fear in our hearts as quickly as those four little words. In my experience, those were always negative words to hear. My heart would skip a beat, my stomach would clench, and I’d prepare myself for the worst.

    An employee was quitting.  

    Someone was mad at somebody else.  

    Whatever the case, nothing good was going to come of the “talk.”

    Why must we only “need to talk” when we have something “bad” to say? I realized that I had taught my team that talking was a scary thing. Any time I said those words to my staff, it was because I had to discuss something they didn’t want to hear – like a mistake, or something they failed to do (probably innocently enough, too). Everyone came to understand that a private conversation was likely punitive.  

    I was on a mission to change that culture. By the time I realized my conversations needed to be more focused on development and recognition, it was too late– I had already established a correlation between conversations with me and bad news. As leaders, private conversations with our team members are sometimes necessary. 

    Here are a few tips to change the negative correspondence with the phrase “We need to talk.”:

    1. Don’t Say “We Need to Talk”

    As simple as that. Stop using those vague, ambiguous words.  Instead, try saying something like “Hey Jessica, I wanted to take a moment and see how things are going with you – want to take a quick break from the front desk and catch up?”  

    This request clearly states your purpose, and it’s a welcoming purpose– you care enough to want to know how they are, listen to their personal feedback, give them a safe space to vent, brag about accomplishments, offer suggestions, etc. 

    Who would turn down the chance to take a quick break from the daily routine to sit and bond with their boss? That leads us to…

    2. Build Relationships

    Instead of only talking to your people one-on-one when something has gone awry or what you need them to do, spend time one-on-one building a relationship with them.  Show an interest in them.  Talk about their personal/professional goals and what they want to accomplish in their role.  Help them develop the skills they desire. 

    If you nurture our staff in this way, when you do have to discuss an opportunity or do a performance review, it won’t be so scary for them to sit in a room with you.  Make the effort to relate to them.

    3. Don’t Make Your Office a “No Mistakes Zone”

    Preface conversations relating to fault with the fact that it’s okay to make mistakes! 

    I used to get really frustrated when others made mistakes or failed to do something, and I realized that it made people afraid of me. It also discouraged people from taking ownership of their work.  I make mistakes too, and wouldn’t want to be reprimanded for doing so. 

    I needed to be more forgiving and put less focus on the mistake itself and more focus on how we can get desirable results in the future. I found my relationship with my employees greatly improved once I became more forgiving of faults and less punitive about mistakes. As a leader, you have to establish that it’s okay to stub your toe.

    4. Ask More Questions

    When it’s time to offer feedback on a situation, ask more specific questions pertaining to it. Once I started using this approach (versus firing off everything they did wrong and why), I discovered that more often than not, the employee knew where they mis-stepped. If they recognize it themselves, you don’t have to. If they are unaware of their mistakes, questions can prove them to realize where they steered wrong. It’ll help them correct behavior faster and more consistently if they come up with their own action plan, AND you don’t have to be the “bad guy”.

    5. Schedule Regular Performance Reviews

    Employees thrive on hearing how they are doing– especially the good stuff! If you are consistent with your check-in’s, not much should come as a surprise in your conversations. With each conversation, you will begin to calm any anxiety your staff may have about talking to you.

    In Conclusion:

    What culture have you created in your hospital around private conversations? What might you as a leader need to do differently going forward?  

    Be advised, when you do start changing the conversation, your team may be confused. Be sure to communicate your intent and what you want to accomplish in building a better relationship with your employees. You also might have to fall on the sword a little to get things started.  Acknowledging your part in the fear they feel will go a long way in helping them accept a new normal!

    Chris Henning
    Chris Henning – Hippo Manager Practice Coach

    Chris Henning has been in the veterinary field for over 10 years, her specialties including wellness plan implementation, change management, professional development, and customer service. She believes in providing the highest level of medical care to pets and clients, while developing teams to perform at their highest potential. Chris is passionate about helping other veterinary leaders expand their own leadership skills to increase their own team engagement and financial success.


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