Communication in Crisis: What Clients Go Through in an Emergency

When a client is facing an emergency, communicating important information such as treatment, diagnosis, and cost can be difficult to deliver. Learn from Chief Administrative Officer Monica Maxwell, SPHR, SHRM-SCP about ways to ensure everyone is on the same page.

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Pet emergencies occur every minute of every day – but for our clients it is a singular monumental event. Pets are, in fact, family. They are family that like to eat socks, brawl in the street, enjoy an occasional pot brownie (double toxins), and can be talked into high risk activities by squirrels, but they are also family that cannot communicate with us about their needs and who share a deep bond with their owners.

In an emergency, people experience a physical response to the stress such as increased adrenaline, heart rate, blood pressure and body pressure. This physical response often includes increased strength and focus (albeit short lived). At DoveLewis, we see this most clearly when clients come in with large dogs that have been in an emergency. Owners are often able to lift large, heavy dogs into their car and bring it to us.

But this physical response often results into psychological response as well. People in an emotionally stressful event often experience the following:

  • Tunnel vision
  • Panic or anxiety
  • Decreased brain functions
  • Irrational thoughts
  • Increased sensitivity

Added to those feelings of panic, anxiety, and increased sensitivity is fear, helplessness and sadness. Those feelings often pop up externally as anger.

Added to the emotional responses, tunnel vision, and decreased brain function, is what people hear. In the best of situations, people hear twenty percent of what we say. In a crisis situation (like a pet emergency) they hear seven percent of our words. Seven percent!

And herein lies the problem. In a pet emergency, the pet’s owner is the one who is responsible for not only telling us what happened to lead up to the emergency, but also needs to process complex medical information and make an informed decision based on what they understood.

How can we reasonably expect to get an informed, reasonable decision from someone who is experiencing decreased brain function, tunnel vision, fear, anxiety, and only hearing seven percent of our words? Are we simply in a situation where we are setting ourselves up to fail?

Our primary job is to be an advocate for our patients. When we are training our staff how to communicate in an emergency, we must have this tenant as our overarching goal. The only way to get the patient what they need is to ensure the client has the information and UNDERSTANDS it.

The question – how do you communicate with a client in crisis? It all starts at the beginning.

  1. Mirror the client’s communication and body language. Do they talk quickly and to the point? You should follow suit. Are they sitting? You should sit. 
  2. Listen more than you talk. While it is important for you to get decisions and information from clients quickly, listening will reassure the client which can help you get information more quickly.
  3. Ask specific questions. Clients often have the information we need to treat their pet, but may not realize it.
  4. Be careful about talking in extremes before it is necessary.
  5. Don’t be judgmental. It is easy to wonder in hindsight why a pet wasn’t brought in sooner. We have no idea what our client has going on at home. The most important thing is that they brought their pet in now.
  6. Constantly be aware of your tone, posture, and attitude. Be calm and direct.
  7. If you do have bad news be direct, but also use a tangible object for the client to focus on. The American Red Cross has learned this helps the individual focus on what you are saying.
  8. Finally, know when to ask for help. Sometimes a client may not respond well to one particular person. Know when to switch out, or if the client becomes threatening, make sure your staff knows when to call the police.

So you know what clients in an emergency look like, but how do you train your staff to deal with this? Training should be an ongoing process that should be done and refreshed over time.

Begin by training your staff to understand the psychological and physical responses of a client in an emergency. While this may seem theoretical, their ability to understand these responses are critical. With this understanding, your staff can triage the client when you are communicating with them about their pet. Specifically –

  • When you talk, does their body stiffen or relax?
  • Are they looking you directly in the eye?
  • Are they leaning towards you or away?
  • Are they clenching their jaw?

If the client’s body language indicates they are not listening, this tells your staff they need to change their communication approach.

Have your staff practice. The best way to do this is to role play different scenarios. While many staff members don’t like to role play, it does help them practice different situations in a safe scenario.

Review how things are going. Every emergency that comes in should be discussed with the entire staff. How was the process? What went well with the communication and what could have gone better? Use it to train – every situation is a learning situation.

In conclusion, clients in emergencies are challenging, so we must work extra hard to ensure we get them the information they need so we can help their pet, our patient. As managers and clinic owners, we need to make sure our staff has what they need to successfully communicate with clients in crisis.

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Stacie Tarpey's picture

Working in an emergency vet clinic this article has piqued my interest and has some very good points to help understand what the clients are going through in an emergency. It will help us understand and be compassionate and understanding when it comes to emergencies.

Rachel Medo's picture


Thank you for sharing! We are glad that this article can help you at your own emergency clinic.

Cyndi Ballard's picture

I found this part very interesting: "If you do have bad news be direct, but also use a tangible object for the client to focus on." Could you please share some examples of tangible objects used in these emergency scenarios?