Helen's blog: Complaints are like residential parking! How to let them go.
Updated: 2 days ago
Complaints are common in veterinary practice. I'm not saying that to scare you, but so that, when you get a complaint you realise that you're not alone. Not just that you're not alone but that every vet that you're ever likely to meet has had to deal with complaints against them at some point in their career. What a complaint doesn't mean is that you are a bad vet or a bad person, or even that you've done anything wrong at all. You might have made a mistake (you are human, remember) or the complaint might be motivated by something else.
I like to think of complaints like residential parking. On our street lives a very angry old man. There is a bit of pavement in front of his house where he always parks. There's nothing to stop anyone else parking there when he's out, it's perfectly legal for anyone to park there. However, if you innocently happen to choose that space he will tell you what he thinks of you when he gets back with his shopping. He HATES it. You've done nothing wrong at all but still, you get a bollocking! Do you see what I mean? You feel awful, because you've been shouted at, but you didn't deserve it one bit.
I have a lot of experience dealing with complaints as a manager in a busy vet hospital, and the vast majority of them are residential parking ones. That's not to say that we can't learn from them, there are sometimes communication problems or errors that we can learn from but it's not usually a big deal.
What I wanted to talk about here is how you deal with your negative feelings around complaints. For anyone, complaints are very hard to stomach. For people like me, with ADHD, it can make things even more difficult. There are lots of reasons for this. Those of us with ADHD can find emotional regulation difficult and often experience rejection sensitivity. This can make it tricky to deal with the feelings that arise here. We tend to ruminate. Also, poor self esteem and anxiety can exacerbate the situation.
Here are my tips for dealing with your emotions when a complaint is made....
1. Talk to someone about it.
This seems obvious, but so often it doesn't happen. There's a real stigma around complaints that makes us feel shame when we receive one. Psychologist and researcher Brene Brown has done loads of research on shame and she has found that the "antidote" to shame is empathy. She says "empathy creates a hostile environment for shame-it can't survive". So talking to someone who shows some empathy us really going to help here. Ideally, this would be your line manager. If you don’t think empathy would be forthcoming in that department, try another colleague or any friend or family member. For me personally, another vet is the most helpful because they have the clinical insight to tell you that you’re worrying too much. They might also have a similar story to tell which is mega useful. You will feel better for sharing your worries. The more we talk about complaints (and mistakes) the more normal it will be to do so, so it’s a win win really. We can learn, grow and move on.
2. Try and see it from the owner’s point of view.
I think this is a little controversial and it’s certainly not easy. Probably what you want to do is phone them up and call them every rank name under the sun because they’ve ruined your day (or week more likely). I wouldn’t recommend this, they’re probably better at swearing than you. I’m assuming that your practice has a good complaints handling procedure. If not, that is something to address. As an aside, it’s much better if someone who is not involved in the complaint handles it with the owner. I’m way too emo to handle my own complaints. If you’re not involved you can be much more rational.
Anyway, in my experience most complaints are motivated by grief or money. These are probably things that you can’t do much about. What it means is that you are not a bad vet or a bad person and even the owner doesn’t think that you are. I think that’s quite liberating.
If you can see it from the owner’s point of view and offer them some compassion, you’re much more likely to be able to offer yourself some compassion. They might just be lashing out because they’ve lost their best friend.
3. Try to think about whether you can learn anything.
This is best after a few days, if you’re feeling upset about the complaint you might want to take a bit of time first. There might not be anything that you could or would change about what happened. That’s fine, as long as you’ve thought it through. If there are learnings that you can take away then it changes complaints from horrible things that you don’t want to deal with into opportunities for growth.
I used to feel like getting a complaint was the end of the world but the more I deal with, the more I realise that this just isn’t the case. The fact is that brilliant vets will get complaints, you just need to reach out, the profession is full of people that will help you through.
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