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The Art of Defusing Conflict

It’s been a long, miserable afternoon. The cat room has been hit hard by an upper respiratory infection, a puppy is vomiting blood, five dogs have to be euthanized for space, and now this: A very loud, very angry man wants to reclaim the rottweiler animal control officers captured at a busy intersection as the dog dodged traffic—for the second time this month. The guy insists his pet had been confined to the yard.

It’s been a long, miserable afternoon. The cat room has been hit hard by an upper respiratory infection, a puppy is vomiting blood, five dogs have to be euthanized for space, and now this: A very loud, very angry man wants to reclaim the rottweiler animal control officers captured at a busy intersection as the dog dodged traffic—for the second time this month. The guy insists his pet had been confined to the yard.

We already know what you’re thinking, but what are you going to say? And can you say it in a way that cools the conversation instead of fanning its flames?

Believe it or not, you can. Even on your worst days. It won’t always be easy, obviously, and it does take practice, but experts insist that you can prevent a volatile confrontation by using proven conflict resolution techniques. Some are purely physical and some are procedural, while others are philosophical. All have the power to quell a hot situation whether you’re at the shelter, on the phone, or in the field. Read on:

AIM FOR EMPATHY. When a client wants to relinquish a litter of kittens the same day you euthanized 12 cats, it won’t be easy to feel his pain, but empathizing—even if you have to fake it at first—can be a profoundly effective way to short-circuit a blowout.

As you practice putting yourself in your client’s place, realize that “just the act of walking into a shelter can be stressful for some people, especially if they’re there to relinquish an animal,” says Kate Pullen, director of animal sheltering issues for The HSUS. “We think they don’t care about the animal when in fact they may have gone through tremendous angst in getting up the courage to finally say, ‘I can’t keep my pet anymore.’ Whether their reasons are legitimate or not, it takes a lot of guts to come to that decision.”

BE A GOOD LISTENER. The trick is to listen without judging, a daunting feat when every fiber in your body knows you’re talking to a colossal jerk. But if your goal is a civil interaction that’s truly best for the animals, consider listening with warmth and respect, and aim for understanding rather than agreement, advises Cindy Machado, animal services director for Marin Humane Society in Novato, California. Learn to paraphrase your client’s comments without reacting or blaming, says Machado, and watch that body language: try to maintain sincere eye contact, nod your head, and keep your facial expression friendly and open.

Then follow up with simple phrases: “I’m sorry you’re having so much trouble. Let me try to help you.” Or: “That must be so frustrating. Let’s see if we can work through this.” Or, if it’s truthful: “Oh, that’s awful. The same thing happened to me.”

PUT YOUR POLICIES IN BLACK AND WHITE. People are less likely to explode when they know all your rules in advance. Post and hand out written versions of your policies on relinquishment, reclaiming, code enforcement, and adoptions—especially adoptions, a process that often provokes the angriest confrontations. If people do become upset by your decisions, at least you can show that they are not arbitrary but rather are based on actual organizational policy.

DON’T TAKE IT PERSONALLY. That’s easier said than done, especially if you’re already sensitive or defensive about your job. But if you’re trying to calm an agitated client, the worst thing you can do is let yourself get sucked in by nasty comments or accusations. In her workshops on “verbal aikido,” Machado suggests placing “an imaginary shield around you to deflect negativity.”

Finding the Right Words

Ready to practice what the experts preach? Check out the following scenarios, imagine your own response, and then read the conflict-cooling alternative. Of course, it’s one thing to see these suggestions in a magazine, but quite another to use them in the heat of the moment. Experts suggest role-playing with coworkers (or a friend) until calming techniques become second nature.

A man is angry about the fees he has to pay to reclaim his dog. He calls you a “dog killer.” You think he’s obnoxious, filthy, and loud. What do you say?

Stay calm and let him know you can understand how upset he is about the fee. Explain that the fee covers the shelter’s cost of caring for the dog. Say that you can see how much he cares about his dog’s well-being since he came to reclaim him (or, since he is inquiring about reclaiming him, as the case may be if you are working in the field). You might add, “I really want to address your concerns, but it’s hard to talk to you when you’re angry.” If he continues being upset, tell him that you’re going to find someone who can help him. If you’re out in the field, break the conversation off as gently as possible, move towards your truck, and leave, giving the man your business card and telling him to come to the shelter to talk to your supervisor. (Of course, if the situation still escalates, call the police for backup to prevent assault or attempted theft of the animal.)

It’s summertime and you’ve already accepted four litters of kittens today. A woman walks in with yet another litter. You’re at your wit’s end. What do you say?

Accept the kittens in a friendly, professional way and say, “Thank you for caring enough to bring these kittens to us. We have 15 more up for adoption, so we can’t guarantee placement, but we’ll do our best to help you and the kittens. In the meantime, there is a way you might be able to help us, too ...” Then offer her information on where she can get her mother cat spayed and suggest making the appointment for her.

As you’re issuing a citation to an uncooperative man whose dog was found running loose, he screams, “I can’t believe you’re ticketing me! Everyone else’s dogs run loose all the time. My dog is hardly ever outside!”

Again, you can explain the policy and make the man aware of his options. But you can also ask him for his help. “I’m writing the citation because we received a complaint about your dog and I viewed the violation. But you’re not obligated to pay the fine. You can appear in court and request consideration for the circumstances. I’d also appreciate it if you could let me know about the other loose dogs you mentioned so I can contact their owners."

REMOVE THE PHYSICAL BARRIER. If you’re sitting behind a counter, stand up; you still may not see eye-to-eye, but at least you can relate to your client at eye level. If you’re comfortable enough that neither party will feel threatened, try to enter the same space so you can share some common ground—if not figuratively, at least literally. “Almost all bad things happen when there’s a physical barrier such as a counter or door,” says Sally Fekety, a former shelter operations director and the current spokeswoman for the National Council on Pet Population Study and Policy. “Things can be completely ugly, and all you have to do is just walk around the counter and stand right next to the person—you don’t even have to talk—and 95 percent of the time the conflict just flat-out disappears. By coming around from behind the counter you made them, and their issue, feel important.” Fekety says this technique has never failed her.

DON’T FAN THE FLAMES. Personalized, blaming, and accusatory comments are, as Machado puts it, “fire starters.” Avoid them by keeping communication impersonal. A simple technique is to use “I” instead of “you” whenever possible. So instead of saying, “You’re wrong,” try “I can see there’s been a miscommunication.” Instead of “You failed to license your dog so I’m issuing a citation,” try “I was unable to find your license in our computer. Do you have a copy of it?” Instead of “You don’t understand,” try “I need some clarification.”

TAKE AWAY THE STAGE. “Someone may be adamant about being a righteously good pet owner in the lobby because everyone is watching and it’s flat-out embarrassing to admit [the truth],” says Fekety. The next time a client starts grandstanding in the lobby or on a crowded street, gently lead her to a private area and continue the conversation there.

STAND BACK AND LET THEM RANT. When all else fails, “sometimes the best course of action is to let someone just vent,” says Didi Clement, who is the volunteer coordinator for Frederick County Animal Control in Maryland but also handles humane education and public relations. Take your volcanic client out of public view, then let him blow. “Just be sure to consider safety and be prepared to call in back-up.”

FOLLOW THE 30-SECOND RULE. Think of a waiting client as a pressure cooker building steam. The longer she waits, the angrier she will be when you have to tell her something she doesn’t want to hear. If someone’s waiting at the desk, acknowledge her within 30 seconds of her arrival, with a raised finger or nod or quick verbal recognition: “I’ll be with you as soon as I can.”

FINE-TUNE YOUR PHONE SKILLS. Identify yourself and your organization every time you pick up the phone, and if you need to put your caller on hold, first ask if you may, then actually wait for an answer before hitting that hold button. “Maybe someone’s got a bleeding dog and, no, they cannot wait,” says Pullen. When you return to the phone, let your caller know you’re sorry she had to wait and thank her for her patience.

BE AWARE OF YOUR FILTERS. Knowing the facts in any situation—unembellished and unencumbered by bias—is critical to handling conflict. Machado teaches shelter staff to be vigilant for any gut feelings or preconceptions that could cloud true perceptions. Whether you’re walking into a yard littered with empty beer bottles or interviewing someone with a previous record of complaints, make sure your attitude isn’t hindering your ability to gather facts and deal fairly.

TRY ICEBREAKERS. Whether you’re in the shelter or in the field, it’s a good idea to always introduce yourself and use a blow-softening icebreaker before launching into the serious stuff, suggests Clement. An officer might compliment landscaping at a house or agree with a client at the desk that yes, that really is a cute dog, before telling her she’s already been adopted. Obviously icebreakers are unlikely to work if the situation has already reached a fevered pitch; in fact, they can make things worse if clients believe you’re trying to placate them or diminish the significance of the situation. Use this one judiciously.

DEPLOY THE “SERVICE NO.” Imagine declining an adoption application and getting a hug in return. It may well happen someday, especially if you use what conflict gurus call “service no” in training materials produced by Giant, Inc., a mid-Atlantic grocery store chain. You tell the client what they cannot have, offer them something they can have, and then direct them to what you will do next.

Suppose someone wants to adopt a tuxedo cat who seems shy, but only on a trial basis in case he doesn’t want to come out of hiding. Most shelters would probably tell her something like, “No, we don’t allow people to try out animals here, but if it doesn’t work out you would have to bring the cat back because that’s in our contract.”

Clement constructs a very different response, starting with an explanation of what she can’t give the client and relaying that some cats are just shy in the shelter: “This cat may come out of her shell once she’s been adopted and feels comfortable, but she may not. We wouldn’t adopt out a cat on a trial basis because if it doesn’t work out, it’s hard on the pet as well as the adopting family.”

That’s followed by an explanation of what the client can be helped with: “If you have your heart set on a tuxedo cat, let me take a pet request from you.” And it ends with what the shelter will do next: “I’ll notify you when we have another tuxedo cat who seems more outgoing and give you the number for the local cat fostering group we work with.”

OBSERVE THE HONESTY POLICY. It’s tempting to fudge the facts when the truth could jeopardize your reputation. Never a good idea, says Pullen, recalling the time her shelter accidentally euthanized a cat during its stray hold. When the cat’s owner materialized to claim her pet, Pullen knew she had to come clean, and the woman surprised her by responding with understanding. “If we hadn’t been up-front with her, there would have been a black cloud hanging over the organization,” says Pullen. “When someone who’s mad at you gets hold of the information, calls the media, and ruins your reputation, it can blow up in your face.”

Pullen also advocates honesty when clients call to see whether their relinquished pets have been adopted. When pets are surrendered, shelter staff should say: You’re welcome to call back and we will tell you the truth. “To say, ‘We’re not going to tell you’ leaves the public hanging,” says Pullen. “It becomes this big mystery. They want to know what you’re hiding, and that’s a real slippery slope.”

TAKE CARE OF YOURSELF. Take breaks, get out for lunch, plan vacations, and for heaven’s sake, take them! If you feel like you’ve reached your last nerve, ask coworkers to fill in for you—by handling an irate client, for example—and do the same for them when they need it. Use your benefits to obtain training, Clement suggests, and if you don’t have benefits, ask family members to support your cause by buying you books or paying for conference fees as a gift. Going to conferences will put you in touch with other animal workers outside your organization. “You’ll realize,” says Clement, “that most organizations fight the same battles. You’re not alone.”

FINALLY, REMEMBER YOUR GOAL. There are many good reasons to improve your communication style, but the most compelling is this: It’s what’s best for the animals, and that’s your ultimate goal. It’s no secret that shelter staff and the public aren’t always natural allies; lots of animal care workers admit they prefer pets to people, and given some of the people they deal with daily, who can blame them? In the meantime, much of the public thinks you’d have to be heartless or crazy to work at an animal shelter.

But these two groups could and should be allies if you hope to someday see a more responsible pet-owning public. “Yes, people can make mistakes and people can be irresponsible, but it is our job to take better care of these same people so they’ll take better care of their pets,” explains Pullen. She calls it “client relationship-building.”

Realize that you rely on the public to donate money and time, to alert you to neglectful situations, and to ultimately adopt your animals. “We want them to think of us as a resource,” says Pullen. “We want them to come back to us when they’re having problems, even if they need to relinquish a pet. Our attitude needs to be: ‘Let me help you deal with this problem so you won’t have to go through it again.’ ”

Debra Kent, a freelance writer, volunteers for the Bloomington Animal Shelter.

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