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Breaking bad news and genuine empathy

How do you feel when you have to tell someone something they would really rather not hear? 

Unwanted or unexpected news can be hard to hear and sometimes just as hard to deliver. Sadly, breaking bad news in practice comes with the territory. Sometimes these conversations go well, other times not so much and it can be anxiety provoking wondering what reaction you will get from your client. There are some things you can do to help more of these conversations go the way you want, leaving you confident you have delivered the news in the best way possible for the client. 

Whilst there isn’t a one size fits all approach, fellow vet and VDS Training Consultant, Elly Russell, offers some top tips to consider. 

Preparation is key 

  1. Anticipate: How would you want to hear this news? What sorts of emotions might it provoke for your client? Sadness and anger often spring to mind, but there can be layers of emotions including grief, guilt, fear, regret, embarrassment and many more. 
  2. Prepare yourself: we are all spinning lots of plates, so take a moment to metaphorically put them down to ensure you can be intentionally present for this client in this moment. A couple of seconds bringing yourself into the present, possibly with a few deep breaths, is time well spent. 
  3. Prepare the environment: on the phone or face to face, think about ensuring you have a quiet, interruption free space. If you’re in a room, plan how you might set this up in advance and get the team involved to help if you can. 

Take your time 

Choose your words carefully and don’t rush. Clients can find it difficult to take a lot of information at once and especially if the news comes as a shock. These simple steps can help. 

  1. Deliver an early warning shot, e.g. “Mr Smith, I’m afraid I have some bad news” – this helps mitigate some of the shock and can help ensure your client is more likely to hear what comes next. 
  2. Don’t leave them hanging – anticipating difficult news feels awful. Pause for a moment and then deliver the key information clearly and succinctly. 
  3. Pace the delivery of any technical information to avoid overwhelming your client. Less is more. Ensure you get the ‘headline’ news across as too much information won’t be heard. Your client can always ask to know more when they are ready.
  4. Give your client time and consider asking if they are ready for you to move on in the conversation e.g., “Are you ready for me to talk you through the options we have?” 

Empathy 

Don’t let emotion be the elephant in the room. Demonstrating appropriate empathy is key. Following these steps will help to ensure your client feels you have handled the situation with care. 

  1. Recognise the emotions: notice what your client is doing and saying. Cues to how they are feeling might be non-verbal or verbal. Get that what you are seeing is emotion and that it is important to respond. 
  2. Acknowledge their emotions: this can be a simply as saying what you see e.g., “Mr Smith, I can see how upsetting this is for you.” It lets the client know we have noticed what is going on for them and that we are stepping alongside them to support them. 
  3. Validate: a final helpful step is to normalise or validate their emotional reaction to the situation, which can help clients feel more comfortable and can reduce any embarrassment or anxiety they have about their reaction., e.g., “This is really difficult news to hear, of course it’s going to be very upsetting.”  
  4. Compassion: Compassion can be thought of as the offer to act as a consequence of having experienced empathy. Ask your client what they need and give them the opportunity to share their thoughts, feelings and ideas. It can be as simple as an offer to help, e.g., “Is there anything I can do to help you in this moment?” 

Afterwards 

Ensure your client is clear with the next steps and has had time to ask any further questions. Where possible, think again about how to involve the whole team in continuing to support your client. Then turn your mind to yourself. What do you need? You might feel absolutely fine to continue on with your day, but you might need a couple of minutes to reset, have a cup of tea or a longer talk with a colleague. Taking time to look after yourself afterwards is important and can help mitigate the risk of compassion fatigue. We will all respond differently and that’s fine, but be aware that repeatedly caring for others through emotionally difficult situations can be tough and talking things through can be very beneficial. You may do this is a very informal way, but more formal debriefing and supporting structures, such as Schwarz rounds, can be helpful – get in touch if you would like any more information. 

You can also proactively prepare and practice for these types of situations too with the use of role play. The VDS newsletter is a great source of fictitious stories that you might like to use or you might wish to opt for a real life example or one from the past.  

If you’re doing this with a colleague, perhaps take it in turns to assume the role of the client; putting yourself in someone else’s shoes is often one of the best ways to understand them. There are also benefits to conducting role plays with a family member or friend who isn’t part of the veterinary profession so are able to remain impartial and aren’t influenced by their own experiences. 

Either way, make sure to ask your role play partner how they felt throughout the scenario. Though your role play scenarios may not necessarily be real, they will evoke genuine feelings of emotion and allow you to explore areas in which you might be able to improve. 

Here at VDS Training, we have been delivering communications training for vets and RVNs for many years. Our team of veterinary and coaching experts are perfectly placed to deliver training and coaching across core non-clinical skills, either for individuals or whole practice teams. Their own experience of working within the veterinary profession means they have hands-on experience of the challenges veterinary professionals face. If you are interested in finding out more about training courses for vets and vet CPD, please click here to visit the VDS Training website or contact us on +44 (0)1565 743862 or info@vds-training.co.uk

Notes

VDS Training Services Limited (trading as VDS Training) is a wholly owned subsidiary of The Veterinary Defence Society Limited. 

About VDS Training
VDS Training are passionate about developing all members of the veterinary team, to help you overcome the personal and professional challenges you face on a daily basis, and to build practical skills and techniques to make a real difference to you and your life.