How to Deliver Bad News to Clients

When it comes to human medicine, one area that is of particular importance is how conversations involving bad news are handled. This is a key component of the so-called “bed side manner” that is so often talked about. But what about veterinary medicine? 

Like it or not, there will always be situations in which you’ll have to tell a client something he or she does not want to hear, whether it’s a serious diagnosis, poor prognosis or even just the cost of treatment. The way you approach the delivery of bad news can mean all the difference in the world and solidify the connection you have with your clients.

If you struggle in this area or find conversations like this to be particularly challenging, here are a few tips to keep in mind.

Start with the right setting.

If given the choice, it’s always a better idea to have clients come into the clinic and sit them down privately as opposed to delivering bad news over the phone. It’s also important that you set aside enough time to have the discussion. If the news is particularly grim, you may wish to suggest that the client bring along a friend or family member who can provide support and help them process the information being provided. 

Follow the 4 keys to good communication.

Sometimes delivering bad news can be just as distressing to the clinician as it is to the client hearing it. By sticking to the following four core communication skills, you can make the best out of the situation for everyone involved.

Watch your non-verbal cues. It’s believed that 93% of our communication is non-verbal in nature. That takes into account the way you carry yourself outside of what you say to the client. If you enter the room feeling upset, that can make an already unpleasant situation even worse. Keep the tone of your voice calm, position yourself on the same level as the client and maintain eye contact at all times. Watch their non-verbal signals. If the client looks upset or ill, pause and ask if they’d like to take a moment. If you both feel comfortable, offering a pat on the back or a hug may also be welcome.

Demonstrate empathy. Let the client know that you understand what they may be feeling by verbally acknowledging their distress. This will show that they are being heard and that their feelings are validated. If you’ve experienced a similar situation with your own pet, sharing that can provide comfort and really help to forge a connection. For example, a statement as simple as, “Learning that a loved one has cancer is never easy. I remember how I felt when my dog Roofus was diagnosed,” can make the client feel less alone and may help them refocus on the conversation at hand.

Ask open-ended questions. You should never assume that you know what the client is thinking or feeling. Instead, you should encourage a dialogue by asking open-ended questions, like: “What questions or concerns are weighing on your mind?” or “What are your thoughts on how we might proceed from here?” A good rule of thumb is to ask instead of tell. Additionally, asking how much a client already knows about a disease or condition can save time and help you begin the discussion at the appropriate level.

Practice active listening. As the client provides answers to your open-ended questions, be sure you are actively listening to their responses. A great way to do this is to be reflective. That is, to rephrase and repeat the response. This shows the client that he or she is being heard while also clarifying to prevent any misunderstanding. For instance, if a client voices concern about treatment, reflecting their response can help you determine whether it’s the cost, time involved or something else that they’re worried about.

Be Prepared for the Aftermath

Once the bad news has been delivered, be prepared for what will likely be an emotional response. There are many directions this could go in. Some clients may be shocked or speechless. Others might be very matter-of-fact. And, of course, some may break down in tears. Whatever the reaction, your job is to provide support as best you can, even if it means offering respectful silence as they process the information they’ve just received. From there, you can move forward with your recommendations.


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