Three Ways To Improve Your Veterinary Communication Skills
When you initially signed up to become a vet, you probably thought you were pursuing a career in animal care - not public relations.
But the reality is that being a vet involves helping humans just as much as it requires looking after animals. Though some professionals enjoy this aspect of the role, many struggle with managing the expectations and emotions of clients.
This can be a problem, given the impact certain communication practices can have on clinical outcomes¹. Sub-standard communications can also greatly impact vets’ stress levels in the clinic because poor communication tends to result in poor client experience, aka unhappy/grouchy clients.
In this article, we outline three ways in which you can develop your veterinary communication skills, drawing from the latest research in the field.
How To Improve Your Veterinary Communication Skills
Be Aware Of Non-Verbal Communication
Much of what we communicate is non-verbal.
Even during brief exam room interactions, the way you carry yourself will influence how the client perceives you.
Important non-verbal types of communication include:
Hand movements - Our hands can be incredibly expressive, conveying important information to our clients. Putting your hands behind your head, for example, can subconsciously signal that you have bad news, putting the client on edge before you even open your mouth. Leaning back and clasping your hands behind your head, on the other hand, can come across as arrogant, negatively impacting rapport before you have the chance to introduce yourself.
Facial expressions- A blank facial expression can non-verbally communicate distance to your client and make you seem cold or unapproachable. It can also come across as disapproving. Unhelpfully, when we relax our lips tend to naturally downturn into a sour expression. Smiling, on the other hand, conveys an openness that makes you seem more trustworthy. But smiling at the wrong time can also lead to distrust.
Lip movements- Suddenly parting your lips can signal mild surprise, uncertainty, or disagreement. This can throw off clients- especially when they are answering questions. Pressing your lips into a thin line, on the other hand, may signal the onset of anger, dislike, grief, sadness, or uncertainty.
Although there are some general cues we can draw from body language, it is important to note that this is heavily influenced by culture. For example, in some countries strong-eye contact may come across as trustworthy, in others, it may come across as a challenge, or even rude.
Therefore, if you are dealing with a diverse clientele, it may be worth looking into cultural norms and how you can use them to your advantage. Being aware of your body language and intentionally working to help it match the message you are trying to deliver is therefore one way you can improve your communication skills.
Be An Active Listener
If there is one thing all humans like, it’s to be heard. As such, the skill of listening is paramount to good communication. But there’s listening to hear and respond and then there’s listening to deeply understand. The latter involves active listening, coupled with genuine curiosity. This combination is what I consider a superpower!
When you actively listen, you are using all of your senses to engage with someone. This may seem abstract, but in practice, it means actively being in the moment and communicating that you are so.
Active listeners are not only listening and responding to others but physically opening themselves up to conversation. Active listeners remove physical barriers between themselves and their clients, using open body language to encourage discourse. This goes beyond a simple head nod, furrowed brown, or well-timed verbal affirmation. They are curious, giving their partner full attention, so they feel seen and heard.
Active listeners suspend judgment and ask questions such as:
‘Can you tell me more about it?’ or ‘I’d like to hear more about that.’
Particularly in a clinical setting, it is important when engaging with clients to use simple language, as being too technical can create confusion or irritation².
The techniques used in active listening increase feelings of validation and satisfaction in participants³. This makes a massive difference between a productive client interaction and a poor one, so next time you are in practice, lean in (we mean this literally and figuratively) and try using some active listening techniques!
Use Collaborative Communication, Not Directive
When you are low on time, it can be easy to talk at the client, rather than with them.
In a study exploring how vets communicate with their clients, researchers found that they tended to converse in a directive style (minimally asking the client for their input, dominating the consultation agenda, etc.) to the detriment of client compliance.
This rather paternalistic approach to client visits can create distance between you and the client, negatively impacting the relationship. It can make them feel patronized, or even worse, distrustful.
Approaching your client conversations in a more mutualistic, relationship-centered way, therefore, can create a favorable exchange where you are more likely to break through to the client.
Ways of doing this include asking open-ended questions, checking in with the client’s thoughts/feelings, asking about their motivations (and figuring out how you can align them to yours), and being open to and answering queries/concerns. Finding out what matters most to a client and what’s going on in their life beyond the clinical issue is a more effective way to conduct a consultation than taking a narrow and directive approach based only on a book version of “gold-standard care”.
Ultimately, you want to create the sense that you are working through a problem together, rather than telling your client what to do. This can make your client feel that you are on their side, avoiding that us vs. them mentality⁴.
Veterinary Communication Skills: The Takeaway
Veterinary communication skills can be tricky to master. But your persistence and practice in building these skills will pay rich dividends. Our research, conducted with hundreds of recent graduates, has found that the number one thing associated with happiness in vets is a positive relationship between client and vet. One where appreciation is readily shared. Such is the power of this, it ranks above even positive clinical outcomes!
This highlights how client relationships underpin veterinary work, potentially making or breaking a clinician’s experience. Investment in developing this skill set is highly advisable if you wish to have a sustainable and enjoyable career as a vet in practice.
If you are looking for more advice on client communication, why not sign up to our sign up for our training program for veterinarians looking to build a successful and sustainable career?
1- ‘An integrated review of the role of communication in veterinary ….’ 19 Oct. 2020, https://bmcvetres.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12917-020-02558-2. Accessed 12 Jul. 2021.
2- ‘Developing Effective Communication Skills – NCBI – NIH.’ https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2793758/. Accessed 12 Jul. 2021.
3- ‘The Relative Effectiveness of Active Listening in Initial Interactions.’ 8 Jan. 2014, https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/10904018.2013.813234. Accessed 12 Jul. 2021.
4- ‘The future of veterinary communication: Partnership or persuasion ….’ 3 Mar. 2017, https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0171380. Accessed 13 Jul. 2021.