Six Ways to Ease Tensions between Physician Partners

June 25, 2014
Carol Stryker

Physicians don't always get along. The good news is that there are specific tactics to repair the damage and restore the relationship.

Last week's blog described how an initially congenial partnership between physicians can deteriorate into a destructive relationship with negative consequences for the physicians, their staff, and their patients.  

There are clear signals that a relationship is devolving, and there are specific tactics to repair the damage and restore the relationship.

Here are six elements of a relationship treatment plan:

1. Attend to the relationship
Physicians are busy and have limited control over their schedules.  That said, the relationships with their partners require time and attention. 

2. Hold regular meetings
Regular meetings, with formal agendas published in advance, are a good tool.  The format and schedule make it easy to bring up and resolve issues before they become a big deal.  If the partners don't have regular meetings, the fact that one is called automatically puts everyone on high alert that fireworks are coming.

Attendance at the regular meetings must be mandatory, with cell phones, charts, and other distractions banned.  Contrary to popular belief, no one can give full attention to more than one thing at a time.  While you are making a quick, almost automatic response to a text, you are very likely to miss important verbal information and non-verbal cues.

3. Note irritations with and among partners
Most of us are well aware when we are miffed.  That's not what I am talking about. When you are beginning to dislike a partner, or observe that other partners are frequently at odds with one another, try to identify the root cause.  Then do what you can to address and resolve the issue.

By the way, if you have become disenchanted with a partner, the odds are much better than even that she is disenchanted with you.  The two of you really need to talk it through.

4. Remember: Sooner is always better than later
The sooner a threat to mutual respect and/or common purpose is discovered and addressed, the less damage it has done, the more likely a positive resolution is possible, and the quicker and easier it will be to resolve it.

5. Address issues early and openly
Some physical ailments are time limited.  They will get better over time whether any action is taken or not.  Relationship ailments are quite different.  Once the deterioration starts, devolution is inevitable without intervention.

Choose assertiveness over aggression and diplomacy over castigation.  The goal is not to destroy an adversary.  The goal is to rebuild mutual respect and trust. The best way to do that is to address issues as soon as you identify them as something you cannot live with, before they become freighted with emotion.

Be factual, give examples of the problem, and say what you would like to be different.  Then listen to your partner's or partners' point of view.  From there it is almost always possible to craft a satisfactory solution.  At the very least the issues become well understood.

6. Renegotiate the common purpose
Goals and objectives are largely a function of age, stage, and circumstances.  They change over time.  If the relationship between and among the partners is to stay healthy, the common purpose needs to be redefined.

The general principle in play here is that the more detail, the harder it is to get agreement.  At the same time, the more specific the common purpose the more powerful it is in defining the relationship.

When renegotiating the common purpose, start with a discussion of what is not working with the currently understood common purpose.  Then move to progressively broader, less specific statements of purpose until all partners can agree to support the new statement of common purpose.

Partners can have their individual objectives that fall under the common purpose, but everyone has to know and support the statement of common purpose.  Otherwise, the partnership is a house divided against itself and it will not be able to stand.

This sounds like a lot of work, but it does not have to be.  What takes enormous time and effort is repairing badly damaged personal relationship and unwinding failed business relationships. 

An early awareness of trouble brewing and the willingness to act with purpose minimize the time required to keep the relations positive and the partnership productive and profitable.