March 2017

Today’s VETgirl online veterinary continuing education blog is by guest blogger, Karen Schuder, Ed.D., M.Div., M.A.M. Here, she talks about how to deal with difficult people. As veterinary professionals, we often deal with this in the veterinary clinic work setting (e.g., your colleagues, staff, pet owners, etc.).

How to deal with difficult people
Karen Schuder, Ed.D., M.Div., M.A.M.

We each have a unique story and perspective so we may deal with challenges and conflict differently. This can make veterinary work difficult especially when there is a lot of emotion in a situation and/or stress in the work environment. Working with aggressive animals can be trying, but in reality dealing with difficult coworkers, clients, or colleagues is often the most draining. Fortunately there are perspectives and skills that can help us work more effectively with difficult people while promoting personal integrity.

A helpful place to start is by making a distinction between people and behaviors. While we may tend to characterize people as being difficult, it is their behaviors that make life challenging. There are different reasons why people act in unhelpful ways and your job is not to analyze their psychological health, but to help yourself deal with difficult behaviors in constructive ways.

Some general tips for dealing with difficult behaviors include:

1) Define difficult behaviors: Separate behaviors from the person so you can address the behaviors you find challenging. If there are particular behaviors you find really irritating it is good to know what they are, why they affect you, and how you can deal with them effectively. Processing your reactions can help you establish a protocol for dealing with difficult behaviors in the future.

2) Remain as non-anxious as possible: Doing this helps decrease anxiety so you and others can think more rationally rather than over-react emotionally. Have a word or action you can silently say or do to calm yourself when tensions rise. A simple example is taking a deep breath while silently saying a calming word. If a situation becomes too heated taking a short break or enlisting the help of someone who can remain non-anxious may be more beneficial than trying to storm through the encounter.

3) Be intentional about who you are: This means doing the introspective work of understanding personal values, goals, purpose, and beliefs. Writing these things down can be very grounding and provide guidance for dealing with other people.

4) Operate from a foundation of respect: Working with a strong sense of respect for others and yourself is vital to fostering healthy communication that includes listening as much as speaking. Confidence and humility are powerful virtues when dealing with people in difficult situations.

5) Regulate your own emotional reactivity: We do not need to absorb other people’s emotions or be victims of our own emotions. While this may seem like common sense, it is easy to forget. Reminding ourselves other individuals have challenges in their lives we do not know about can help us become more tolerant and give us the strength to calmly hold people accountable for unacceptable behaviors.

6) Learn more about human behaviors and social processes: Keeping up on the latest medical technologies is important, but so is continued growth on interpersonal skills. Such learning can increase tolerance and the ability to deal with challenges.

7) Keep perspective: Life is about more than work, and work is about more than money. Providing care for animals and people is valiant work that can be overwhelming. Know and use the resources available to promote a healthy perspective. Make sure you do things outside of work to nourish yourself, promote joy, and maintain a perspective greater than your career.

Dealing with people can be hard, but with some effort and intentionality we can deal with challenges in positive ways so we do not become one of those “difficult people.”

About Karen Schuder, Ed.D., M.Div., M.A.M.
An avid animal and people lover, Karen has extensive experience leading organizations, as well as coaching and training leaders to help them function at their best. She and her husband, Steve Schuder D.V.M., own a veterinary hospital in Northern Minnesota. Her experience is supplemented by doctoral work looking at leadership, resilience, ethics, management, and organizational development. She is a licensed compassion fatigue professional who has spent most of her life in a variety of caregiving roles helping people deal with traumatic experiences. Her workshops include active learning and participation while providing practical strategies to promote personal growth and career sustainability. More information can be found at her website

  1. Unfortunately, this article wasn’t as helpful as I expected. I’m currently attending an externship where an older technician seems to be the bully of the group, even towards me and it’s my first day. She started the morning yelling at people for the scrub being too dilute. Later, she got mad at me for putting a bucket of scrub on the wrong side of the room (where I was told by another tech to put it) saying “Don’t put that there” rather than telling me to just put it where she preferred, and then when I cleared a back table, I kept all of the instruments together rather than separating dirty from clean (because where I come from we scrub everything after surgery regardless). When another tech noticed my mistake, she got made and tech #3 came to my defense saying I was only trying to be helpful. The bully tech in question said “well, that wasn’t helpful”. While I can see the cause for frustration having to scrub a few more instruments, there was absolutely no need to be rude about it. I don’t think this tech has something going on in her life that makes her this way, I think this is the type of person she is and one of the many reasons some hospitals have a high tech turnover rate. I’m actually too embarrassed to go back down to surgery until I know I’ve got my emotions in check. Do you have any advice to get me through the next two weeks? I know I won’t be applying for an internship here if she’s still employed when the time comes.

  2. these tips can be helpful to remember when working with some coworkers that seem to be very pessimistic and use demeaning remarks.

  3. I find these basic techniques and philosophies helpful. I wish there were more out there to help enlighten us especially as times seem to be becoming more challenging and I feel we cop excuses rather than remember that everyone is dealing with a lot and we all need to be part of the solution.

  4. Man I wish it was this easy. I work with so many bullies and negative Nancy’s that after 20 years, I am seriously considering leaving the field. But thank you for the article!

  5. This also needs to be posted in breakrooms or an area that it can be easily read. I feel that now a days people for get that they are not the only ones going through difficult times. And before passing judgement, maybe ask the person how they are doing.

  6. These are some great points to think about and do, at the same time remember that after a while of using techniques like these that if the bullying and from coworkers, instructors continue don’t be afraid to make a formal statement.

  7. Great pointers! Dealing with difficult clients is one of the most stress inducing things in a vet med setting.

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