Communicating well around complaints

Talking to yourself, your clients and your team about complaints

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Communicating well around complaints

Communication breakdowns with clients and within the teams are a common source of complaints and claims (Oxtoby et al., 2015; Wallis et al., 2019; Russell et al., 2022). That’s why VDS Training offers a range of support to help prevent these problems from occurring in the first place. But what do you do once a complaint has been received? We know that being involved in a complaint is stressful. Negative impacts include reduced wellbeing, changes in attitudes towards the workplace and an increased tendency to practice defensive medicine (Gibson et al., 2022; Low and Wu, 2022). Communication plays a critical role in how we respond to complaints, and in this short blog we offer some top tips on how to communicate with yourself, your clients and your teams when a complaint has been received.  

Talking to yourself

How do you feel if you receive a complaint that involves you?

Common reactions include anxiety and worry about others’ judgements of your actions. Fears about regulatory or disciplinary consequences can also loom large. Try to remember that we often judge ourselves far more harshly than others do. High personal expectations and the resultant shame when things don’t go according to plan can be hard to bear. Reminding yourself that most complaints are the result of a culmination of different factors and relate to practice systems and not just your individual actions, can help.

Another common reaction is to feel angry. Complaints often feel, and in some cases may well be, unfair. This can be particularly galling when practice teams are pulling out all the stops to deliver the best possible care. Caring so much about what we do is a real strength of the veterinary workforce so it can hit us hard when clients are unhappy with the service they receive, especially if we perceive the complaint to be unjustified. 

What the complaint is about can also have a big impact. Is it about a long wait, or a forgotten bill update? Although we might find these sorts of complaints less personally upsetting, having our clinical decisions questioned, especially if we were uncertain about the ‘right’ course of action, can make us feel vulnerable. This can trigger defensive reactions and the need to justify our actions to clients, teams and ourselves. We may also turn our thoughts inwards and ruminate on what’s happened. Although natural, these aren’t always the heathiest or most helpful responses.

Top tips for healthier conversations with yourself:

  1. What would you say to a friend in this situation? How does the way you are speaking to yourself differ from that? Why? What can you change?
  2. Can you get some perspective? Zoom out. Look at the bigger picture, talk to teams, speak to the VDS Claims team or make a VetSafe report. All of these things can help drag us away from focusing on our own individual actions too critically. 
  3. What is the complaint about? About you? About your skills as a vet? Does it mean that? Can you reframe complaints as feedback? What can you learn?

Talking with clients

We all see the world differently and it can be hard to understand why a client has experienced what has happened in the way that they have. Sometimes we might be able to see exactly where our client is coming from and agree with them that things haven’t gone the way we would have wished or intended. Other times a client’s anger and upset can seem incomprehensible, unreasonable and unjust. Avoid feeling defensive, and take time to listen, explore, acknowledge and understand your client’s concerns. Doing this does not mean you agree with their point of view but feeling heard may be all they need. If not, at least you have a much better idea of the true problem and can start to work out what the client needs or wants. Again, this doesn’t mean we will agree to whatever they ask for, but if we fail to hear, acknowledge and understand the client’s problem fully we are always going to be on the back foot. 

Top tips for healthier conversations with clients:

  1. Stay curious. Where might your client be coming from? Are you feeling defensive? How is that impacting how you are communicating with them? Are you really listening?
  2. Acknowledgement doesn’t mean agreement. Ensure your client feels heard and check you have understood their concerns. Acknowledge the impact on them. 
  3. If things haven’t gone the way you intended, acknowledge this. This isn’t the outcome we hoped for. I wish things had gone better too. This is not the level of service we aim to deliver.

Talking as a team

It’s important not to brush complaints under the carpet. Avoiding discussing what has happened might feel easiest but it can leave those involved feeling isolated and unsupported. If someone has been at the centre of a complaint, talk to them about it. Again, listening is crucial here. It can be very helpful to hear that others have been in a similar boat, however if you’re supporting a colleague then you should avoid talking about your own experiences too much. Acknowledge and normalise emotional reactions. Avoid dismissing their discomfort. Whilst we might not want people to be frightened, angry or upset, these emotions are real and shouldn’t be pushed back in a box. The aim is for the other person to feel heard and supported, for them to feel that their reaction is normal and to know that you are there for them. Always signpost additional support such as Vetlife.

Top tips for healthier team conversations:

  1. Talk. Even if you are not sure what to say, have a go. If you know someone has been involved in a complaint, reach out and explore how they are feeling.
  2. Set up regular team debriefs. Make it a habit to talk about what’s working, what’s getting in your way as a team and what’s not working so well. This lowers the barrier to talking about complaints. VetSafe, the Veterinary Defence Society's confidential significant event reporting service available to VDS members, may be able to help you develop solutions which improve the quality of veterinary care.
  3. And finally, listen.


Gibson, J. et al. (2022) ‘“We’re gonna end up scared to do anything”: A qualitative exploration of how client complaints are experienced by UK veterinary practitioners’, Veterinary Record, 191(4), p. e1737. Available at:

Low, R. and Wu, A.W. (2022) ‘Veterinary healthcare needs to talk more about error: For the wellbeing of our patients and medical teams’, Journal of Veterinary Internal Medicine, n/a(n/a). Available at:

Oxtoby, C. et al. (2015) ‘We need to talk about error: causes and types of error in veterinary practice’, Veterinary Record, 177(17), pp. 438–438. Available at:

Russell, E. et al. (2022) ‘Uncovering the ‘messy details’ of veterinary communication: An analysis of communication problems in cases of alleged professional negligence’, Veterinary Record, 190(3), p. no-no. Available at:

Wallis, J. et al. (2019) ‘Medical Errors Cause Harm in Veterinary Hospitals’, Frontiers in Veterinary Science, 6. Available at: (Accessed: 19 November 2022).


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