Dealing with difficult clients

Dr. Joanna Cates, clinical psychologist, writes for Vetsnet:

“It’s sadly not uncommon for veterinary staff to be on the receiving end of some pretty difficult behaviour from their clients – and I’m not talking about those of the animal variety. I mean the human ones!  Rude, grumpy, ungrateful – perhaps even aggressive. From time to time all vets know what it’s like to have to deal with clients whose social skills are less than ideal. When this is occasional then most vets, as with professionals in all walks of life, will take this sort of behaviour in their stride. But when this behaviour is more frequent it can start to wear vets down and can even affect their confidence.

Whilst I’m not a vet, as a clinical psychologist I’ve had some experience of helping people to manage both challenging behaviour in others and also their feelings in response to such behavior. So here are some ideas for managing those tricky interactions and for reducing any negative emotional impact they might otherwise have.


Listen to their grievance

When we feel we are being attacked it’s very normal to feel we want to attack back, to defend ourselves if nothing else. This is where the term being ‘defensive’ comes from, and it’s completely natural to feel like this when a client behaves in an aggressive way.

If you can though, try and hear them out and attempt to make sense of what the cause of their upset is. You may not agree with them but listening and then reflecting back to them what you understand their frustration to be can be immensely powerful. There is nothing that takes the wind out of a grumpy person’s sails quite like being listened to and, better still, understood.


Don’t take angry and rude behavior from clients personally

This can be hard as it’s natural to assume that if someone is being unpleasant it must be because of something we have done. As psychologists we call this unhelpful pattern of thinking ‘personalisation’.

But consider the possibility that there may be other things going on in their lives that are contributing to why they are acting this way. Maybe their mother is in hospital. Maybe their car has just spectacularly failed its MOT. Maybe, unfortunately for them, this is how they are with people generally.

From talking to veterinary colleagues you will know that even the most skilled and experienced vets have to deal with difficult clients now and then, so it’s not necessarily anything to do with you. Just do the best job you can and try not to let their behaviour affect your work.


Be mindful of your tendency to focus on the negative and to discount the positive

Imagine you’ve had a busy day and seen lots of satisfied clients but there was one in the middle of the day who was really aggressive and rude. Despite the fact that you are confident about the way in which you managed the care of their pet, I would bet that this is the person that you go home thinking about or, worse still, wakes you up in the middle of the night.

This tendency to focus on the negative over the positive is hard-wired into us by evolution. A well-known neuropsychologist called Rick Hanson has even described our minds as being “like velcro for negative experiences, but like teflon for positive ones.”

So, if and when you find yourself ruminating about clients who have been rude and ungrateful, maybe try consciously directing your attention to others you’ve had who have been more appreciative and pleasant. I’m sure you’ll find these outnumber the tricky ones – you could even make a quick tally as you consult, just to highlight the point.



Flashing a huge beaming smile at an angry client mid-rant may not be a sensible idea but if done sensitively, smiling can be a useful tool to have up your sleeve. There are a number of reasons why.

Research shows that smiling has a positive effect on us physiologically and that by activating the facial muscles involved in smiling our brains are stimulated to release neurotransmitters that actually makes us feel happier.

Smiling has also been shown to have a positive effect on those around us too – it is contagious. So smiling will have a positive effect on colleagues as well as clients too and therefore the general atmosphere in which you are working.


Share the load

If you feel that clients’ behaviour is really affecting your work and possibly even undermining your confidence then it is really important to talk about it. This could be either to colleagues in your practice or to a more anonymous helpline (Vetlife 0303 040 2551). It could also be with a partner or friends outside of work.  If discussing it within the practice though it’s important to stay professional and not just indulge in a gratuitous tirade.  Respect confidentiality and avoid names, and try to make it constructive by thinking of ways to manage this person if they are someone you will have ongoing contact with in the future.”

Dr Joanna Cates is a clinical psychologist with many years of experience working within NHS adult mental health services. Writing exclusively for VetsNet, she is also a self-professed animal lover and owner of two tearaway Parson Russell terriers.

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