Conflict is an intimate facet of life, borne out of a clash between an internal and external reality, and an attempt, either psychologically or physically, to obviate or deny that reality.

All conflict hinges on language for its resolution. As Ludwig Wittgenstein once remarked, ‘You cannot enter into any world for which you do not know the language.’ Interpersonal language develops at an early age and conflict requires a good degree of self- and other-awareness. An ability to articulate a problem, and steer toward a resolution through body and verbal language is the primary predictor of conflict resolution.

Like accidents, conflicts by their very nature cannot be avoided. Only acceptance can alleviate inner conflict and it is only communication that can mediate an external one.

Legislation attempts to resolve interpersonal conflict by minimizing through law activities that may result in self-harm or harm to others, motivated by a growingly egregious and litigious general public. Yet legislation will never prevent accidents from occurring and therefore conflicts.

It is at the emotional level that conflict arises, and it is through the negotiations of emotion via communication that resolution must be sought.

When accidents happen

Conflict is best dealt with through openness and fairness. In veterinary practice, conflict often arise out of a sense of unmet expectations, either clinical or financial[1]. Sometimes, an unrealistic client expects more than the veterinarian can offer in terms of service for fees, or has heightened expectations of a quality of service beyond what could be reasonably expected of a general practitioner. Sometimes, in spite of our best intentions and skills, patients die, and factor in to this equation the growing disparity between client income and patient outcome and it is easy to see why there is a growing fatigue related to fighting for our professional survival[2].

The marketing dogma of seeking a ‘Win-Win’ solution rarely applies in clinical practise since it has the potential to ‘dehumanise’ a situation or ‘objectify’ a patient. The ‘Win-Win’ notion implies a tendency to no-game, no gain, and playing with people’s emotions is prone to destructive conclusions. Oftentimes, it is more prudent to lose a life than to have no quality of life, to lose a client than gain an enemy, to lose a consultations payment than pay larger insurance levies.

There is no best way to deal with conflict. Clients observe the oft tried and tested maxim that the customer is always right, but if a client is berating a staff member, ultimately a manager must chose between a client and a staff member. And the decision should never be one based on an impatient emotion or the size of a client’s wallet[3].

Being in clinical practise for more than a decade requires incredible patience, vigilance and enthusiasm. Knowing how to maximise an outcome requires constantly balancing one’s technical abilities with a client’s expectations so that regardless of what happens, the client knows that you care more for getting to the bottom of a problem than the boottom line.

When things go pear-shaped

It is in the flurry of heated exchanges that a business person must remain rigidly focussed. Not on the need to be right, but on the long-term implications of a conflict. And not only legally-speaking, but emotionally as well. Chronic conflict is as emotionally draining as it is financially. It is the capacity to remain ‘in the moment’ or self-aware at times of conflict that will dictate the long-term outcome of most conflicts.

Attached to this, there is often a sense or feeling or having erred, or having committed a technical error, which can exacerbate an emotional state of vulnerability. The ability to remain emotionally balanced and open is critical to communicating through any conflict. The oft-used maxim, ‘One gets more with honey than vinegar’ remains true.


  1. ↑ Robbins, SP et al (2001) Conflict and negotiation, in Organizational Behavior, ed 3. French’s Forest, Australia, Prentice-Hall, pp:487–518
  2. ↑ Kondo N et al (2009) Income inequality, mortality, and self rated health: meta-analysis of multilevel studies. Brit Med J 339:b4471. doi: 10.1136/bmj.b4471
  3. ↑ Managing conflict: A workshop for division and development. Chairs and Deans. Chicago, American Council on Education, July 2006

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