The Art of De-Escalation, Part 1

In Part 1 of this 2-part article, we’ll explore strategies for calming down annoyed clients whose stress levels are mild to moderate, and we’ll also discuss what can set people off in these situations. In Part 2, we will go over the more extreme cases of client anger, when stress levels are escalated and through the roof.

By Stacee Santi, DVM

Defusing Tense Client Situations

In the world of veterinary hospitals, stress and tension can be an everyday occurrence. Whether you’re a customer service representative, a veterinary technician, veterinarian, or manager, you’re no stranger to dealing with clients who are frustrated, upset, and sometimes just plain angry. It’s essential to know how to effectively de-escalate these situations. Clients can be stressed for various reasons, many of which may not even be related to you or your team.

In Part 1 of this two-part article, we’ll explore strategies for calming down annoyed clients whose stress levels are mild to moderate, and we’ll also discuss what can set people off in these situations. In Part 2, we will go over the more extreme cases of client anger, when stress levels are escalated and through the roof.

By embracing a spirit of curiosity and empathy, you can smoothly navigate most of these interactions. But occasionally you have to know when to call it, in order to protect your wellbeing and safety.

Understanding Client Stress Triggers

Before we dive into de-escalation strategies, let’s take a moment to understand the deeper issues at play that may send a client into “fight or flight” mode.

Having your goals blocked

We all have a narrative in our head about how our day, week and even life should go. We make plans and get our hopes up based on these assumptions. When we perceive someone or something blocking our ability to achieve our goals, we often move into fight mode. The challenge here is that the client’s agenda is driving their reaction to the situation, which you typically have no control over. However, when we try to understand what their barriers are, we have a much higher chance of resolving the situation.

Consider these two scenarios, from the client’s perspective:

  1. Client A: You need to pick up a refill of your pet’s medication because you are going out of town tomorrow. So, you stop by the vet practice on your lunch hour. You are told that 24-hour notice is preferred and they are swamped and can’t get the refill together right then. You see this as a barrier to meeting your goal of leaving on time, and this person/policy is blocking that. You ramp up, and get angry.
  2. Client B: You need to pick up a refill of your pet’s medication, and you work right down the road from the clinic. You stop in at lunch, and they tell you 24-hour notice is preferred and they are swamped and can’t get the refill together right then. You tell them “No problem. I can stop by later.”
    Both people were faced with the same barrier, but in the first scenario, the client had an agenda and needed this to happen in order to meet their goals. This results in an escalation in an attempt to try to push through to get past the barrier. In the second scenario, there was no barrier because it was easy for the client to come back later. The key is to understand which scenario the client is in so you can collaborate to figure out a solution to their problem.
Feeling powerless

When people feel out of control, they naturally respond by trying to regain control. This may result in yelling, crying, pointing out the way “it should be done,” and failing to accept the situation. We see this predominantly centered around fear for the pet. Clients are likely to be on edge if they believe their cherished pets are in pain or danger. Their emotional connection to their animals can significantly impact their mood and the urgency with which they seek a solution.

A big player here is financial constraints. Many people can’t afford the cost of veterinary care these days. This results in a significant source of stress. Clients who are concerned about the cost of care or don’t have the means to pay for their pet’s care may become anxious or upset during their interactions with the practice.

Being treated unfairly

We all have a basic unspoken (and irrational) assumption that life should treat us fairly. We feel that if we do everything “the right way,” then we should receive the same from the world. When life isn’t fair, we often start trying to bargain our way out of it by somehow thinking if we explain our side of the story, then the universe will understand, admit their mistake, and fix it. When this feeling is paired with the life of a family pet, we have a recipe for disaster when things go wrong. Things as minor as exceeding the estimate to telling a client that the wound hasn’t healed and more surgery will be needed can send a client through the roof.

Making a mistake and feeling guilty

Clients may feel responsible for a situation due to poor planning or making a mistake, leading them to internalize their anger and redirect it towards someone else. Clients may be in a situation where they are afraid of disappointing someone in their family, themselves, or their pet. Maybe they decided to take the e-collar off and now the pet has chewed out their sutures. Their ego won’t easily allow them to admit they made a mistake so they may escalate in an attempt to cover up their error.

By understanding the emotions behind the client’s escalating behavior, it will help you be more successful when you are applying your de-escalation strategy.

When dealing with angry clients, it is important to assess their level of anger as each requires a different strategy.

Level 1: The Annoyed Client

This is the client that is on the verge of becoming upset. They are generally not exhibiting clear cut signals that something is wrong so it is important to be on high alert for body language cues. This could be a cock of the head or widened eyes when reviewing the invoice. It could be a drop of the shoulders or a strong exhale when explaining something. The client is putting off an energy that suggests they are annoyed.


The goal with this client is to uncover what they are feeling and thinking so you can help resolve the situation before they escalate. The easiest way to find out if someone is annoyed is to ask by saying, “Is everything okay?” or, “Is that what you were expecting?” When you inquire about how they are feeling, it opens up the door for them to express what is on their mind.

There are two more levels after Level 1—Level 2, the Angry Client; and Level 3, the Hostile Client. We will cover these clients and how to deal with them in Part 2 of this article, coming in March 2024.

What Clients Find Frustrating That Escalates the Situation

Understanding what can frustrate clients in veterinary interactions is equally important. By avoiding these behaviors, you can prevent situations from escalating:

  • Not taking the time to understand their pet’s problem: Rushing through interactions without fully grasping the pet’s issue can lead to frustration and miscommunication. Of course you are busy and might not have time for this. But when this situation arises, you must make time or it is likely to escalate into a much bigger problem.
  • Not trying to help: Clients expect you to be proactive and helpful in taking care of their pets. Failing to make an effort to assist them can be infuriating.
  • Not appearing to care, being dismissive: Clients want to feel heard and respected. Being dismissive or indifferent to their pet’s health concerns can exacerbate the situation.
  • Pointing out their mistakes: Blaming the client for their pet’s condition is counterproductive. It can escalate anger and undermine trust.
  • Having a superior attitude: Arrogance or judgmental behavior can quickly escalate tensions. Treat clients with respect and humility, acknowledging that they have their pets’ best interests at heart.
  • Stating facts without empathy: While facts are essential, conveying them without empathy can make clients feel unheard and unappreciated.
  • Unreasonable rules: Having policies or rules that don’t make sense can frustrate clients. Flexibility when appropriate can help de-escalate situations.
  • Lack of follow-up: Failing to follow up as promised can damage trust. Consistency in communication is essential.
  • Inaccurate or conflicting information: Providing conflicting or incorrect information can confuse clients and lead to frustration.
  • Not taking responsibility for mistakes: When you make a mistake, owning up to it is vital. Passing the blame or evading responsibility only exacerbates the situation.

Defusing a Level 1 Annoyed Client

In my opinion this is one of the more difficult situations because generally these clients are “on the verge” of escalating but are currently experiencing more of an annoyed phase. They are usually not forthcoming with their feelings, making it very hard to know they are even having disgruntled feelings. This means you have to use your spider-sense to be on the lookout for subtle cues. They include:

  • Being very quiet when they should be asking questions
  • Having a perplexed look on their face
  • Making a subtle sound like “hmm”
  • Body language is suggesting they are unhappy
  • Asking questions about the invoice

It is important that you make it clear that you care about how they are feeling and they feel comfortable expressing themselves. Here are a few phrases that can do the trick:

“Tell me how you are feeling about all of this.”

“Do we have an error on the invoice?”

“Is something wrong? I can’t tell what you are thinking.”

The worst thing, and the most alluring, is to ignore these subtle signs and pretend you didn’t notice anything. Not addressing the elephant in the room will often lead to escalation to Level 2 somewhere down the road. It is much easier to address the problems now when the client is just annoyed versus later when they have escalated to angry.

Look for Part 2 of this article next month in Trends, where we will look at de-escalating clients who are angry, and even hostile.

Stacee Santi, DVM, is a 1996 DVM graduate from Colorado State University and the founder of Vet2Pet, a technology client engagement platform for veterinary practices.

Photo credits: fizkes/iStock via Getty Images Plus, LightFieldStudios/iStock via Getty Images Plus



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