Ten Conflict Management Tips for Medical Practices

October 29, 2014

Dealing with difficult personalities and the resulting conflicts that arise can be an everyday occurrence at many practices. Here's how to address such issues more effectively.

For many medical practice managers, dealing with difficult personalities and the resulting conflicts that arise can be an everyday occurrence. Regardless of whether those difficult personalities and conflicts come from your staff or your patients, addressing them in smart ways is critical.

To help practice managers along the right path, Laura Palmer, an industry analyst at the Medical Group Management Association (MGMA), shared some tips during her Tuesday, Oct. 28 session, "Dealing with Difficult People" at the MGMA annual conference.

Here are 10 of our favorites:

1. Remember to S.T.O.M.P.
When you encounter a situation that might evolve into a conflict, remember the S.T.O.M.P. method: stop, think, consider your options, make a decision, and proceed, said Palmer.

"The reason I think the [stomp method] is so important is that sometimes we second guess what we are thinking," said Palmer. Once you've made a decision about how to deal with the problem, stick by it and move on.

2. Consider the worst-case scenario
When you encounter a conflict or difficult encounter, consider:
A. What will be the worst-case scenario if you respond?
B. What will be the worst-case scenario of you don't respond?
This will help you gain perspective regarding how you should approach the situation, said Palmer.

3. Resist "the trap"
Don't get into an argument that you didn't start, said Palmer. Before engaging in a conflict with a difficult person, take a step back to assess the situation. "... It might be better to think about checking your reactions, consider what you want long term out of this," rather than engaging in the conflict immediately, she said. Also, be aware of your triggers: hot buttons that can get you more emotionally involved, said Palmer. This awareness may help you keep perspective.

4. Speak calmly and respectfully
If someone is attempting to draw you into a conflict, or if you need to address problem behavior, speak slowly and with confidence to the relevant party, said Palmer. Then drop the volume of the conversation to capture the full attention of the individual. "If someone has to lean into you, they're more likely to have focus," she said.

5. Engage the right way
If a conflict situation is escalating, bring down the intensity by asking thoughtful questions and acknowledging how the other person is feeling, said Palmer. "... If you are asking, 'What are you upset about?' you are more likely to show interest in getting some communication going rather than arguing."

6. Acknowledge what's true and what's not
If you are dealing with a difficult personality or conflict, you may encounter over-generalizations regarding your own behavior, said Palmer. For instance, someone might say to you, "You always mess this up." Consider acknowledging a specific area in which the individual is correct, but note that their overgeneralization is not correct. For instance, "Yes, I did overlook that this time, but it has never happened before."

7. Take a deep breath
Take your time to get your thoughts in order when dealing with a conflict or a difficult person."If at all possible, step back, take a couple of deep breaths before you respond," said Palmer. Even a couple of deep breaths will help you craft a more considerate response.

8. Understand frustrations, but don't acknowledge blame or become defensive
Show empathy toward angry or distressed individuals, but don't take the blame for problems unless warranted, said Palmer.

9. Remember that you can leave the situation at any point
Remember that you have an out, said Palmer. For instance, if you are dealing with an irate patient on the phone, let the caller know you are hanging up and that he can call back when he has calmed down, said Palmer. Then, document the details and tell a superior. Palmer, who previously worked as a practice administrator, said, "I would always tell the staff that you don't have to listen to abuse over the phone."

10. Address problems in a professional, caring manner
If you are dealing with a difficult staff member and the behavior needs to be addressed privately, frame it in a professional manner. For instance, ask for permission to provide the individual with feedback, said Palmer. Say something like: "In order for you to be successful in this job, this is what I need to see from you ..." Also, explain the effect the staff member's behavior is having on the practice, and reach an agreement on how the staffer will change the behavior, and within what timeframe.

For insight into four different personality types, as well as how to deal with them, read "Dealing with Difficult Staff at Your Medical Practice."