Preventing Conflict by Learning to Like People by Don Janssen, DVM

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“I like working with animals better than people.” I heard this admission from my coworkers many times during my career as a zoo veterinarian. These animal people would often say it with a measure of pride and conviction. In fact, that is exactly what I did early on as a college freshman.

I was attending Fresno State University and was a member of the pre-veterinary club. The dean of the University of California Davis veterinary school came to speak to us about zoo and wild animal medicine. It inspired me. Immediately I knew that is what I wanted to do, so I couldn't wait to go up afterward and talk to him. I hoped to say something convincing to show I would make a good veterinarian. I got right to the point and said with assurance, “I know I’m cut out for this because I like to work with animals more than people.”

The dean listened. He then said, “You have to understand something right now. In veterinary medicine, you have to like people as much as animals. Otherwise, you will live in conflict, and the animals will suffer for it.” Those words were a gift — a seed that has grown in significance for me over the years.

Based on that seed of wisdom, I have found three principles useful for preventing conflict: 1) have a servant leader mindset, 2) build trusting relationships and 3) create role clarity. Here are some practical ways to live out these principles.

1. Focus on serving the needs of the organization and not on winning an argument.

Serving the organization is the higher and nobler cause. Be on guard against your ambition coloring your approach. Act with the interests of an owner, not merely a “hired hand.”

2. Be prepared for sudden, unexpected conversations that provoke overemotional responses.

You already know those hot-button issues that draw you into an untethered emotional response. Ready yourself instead with a measured, evidence-based reply. Doing so will help reduce the drama and unproductive energy expended. Ultimately, it will increase the likelihood of a reasonable resolution.

3. Build and extend trust well before issues of conflict develop.

Animal behaviorists and trainers use the concept of a “trust account” with their animals. To maintain a positive account balance, trainers must continually pay into it. The same is true with building and maintaining trust with our coworkers. A healthy positive balance in that trust account allows us to maneuver through potential conflicts.

4. Clarify roles that could lead to confusion and territoriality.

Most people feel threatened when they perceive their value or status is decreasing in the workplace. This perception often occurs when there is change and roles are unclear. Good leaders can spot oncoming conflict caused by unclear roles and responsibilities. Conducting a role clarifying exercise among stakeholders can lead to synergy instead of conflict.

Conflict is part of the human experience. We should neither ignore it nor avoid it. Yet, like the diseases we fight in our zoo animals and our bodies, conflict is best prevented. Servant leadership teaches us we can immunize ourselves from most clashes by serving others, building trust and clarifying roles. It may even make it possible to like working with people as much as we do animals!

What is a potential source of conflict brewing in your life? What can you do today to prevent impending quarrels from damaging relationships and hampering your purpose in life and at work? Send us your thoughts on these questions to

For a further discussion on preventing and dealing with conflict, read Upside Down Leadership: A Zoo Veterinarian’s Journey to Becoming a Servant Leader. It’s available at