Opening Shots columnist Dr. Ernie Ward is an award-winning veterinarian, impact entrepreneur, book author and media personality. When he’s not with family or pet patients, Dr. Ward can be found contemplating solutions during endurance athletics and meditation and on his weekly podcast, “Veterinary Viewfinder.” Learn more at drernieward.com
If you have a question about practice life, personal well-being, leadership or veterinary careers, email firstname.lastname@example.orgRead Articles Written by Ernie Ward
The veterinarian slumped a little, a sigh revealing her disbelief and signaling her impatience.
“Can you explain again how that blood test tells us what’s wrong with Tigger’s pee-pee?” the client asked.
The veterinarian didn’t understand what the pet owner couldn’t comprehend. This was so simple. The hashtag #SMH (shaking my head) crossed the doctor’s mind as she began composing a snarky Facebook post for later. She didn’t have time for this. Exasperated, she crossed her arms, stared down at the client seated before her and began repeating, nearly verbatim, the rationale for running blood chemistries in a feline demonstrating inappropriate elimination for the past two to three weeks.
Communication is easy. Effective communication is challenging. Realizing we need to become better communicators is even more difficult.
Hopefully you spotted a few communication blunders in this scenario. Veterinarians need to consider effective communication skills as important as performing surgery or diagnosing hyperadrenocorticism. With a little effort and practice, your team can provide better patient care and client service while avoiding these three communication blunders that cause big troubles with clients.
1. The Wrong Mindset
Communication is more than the words we say; it’s how we say something that matters. Our nonverbal communication, or body language, is arguably more important than the words we utter. Body language is governed by our thoughts and intentions, which is at least part of the problem in the opening example.
The best advice I can offer is tilt your thoughts toward optimism and gratitude with each and every client encounter. While this is often easier said than done, I’ve found my attitude to be far more indicative of outcome when dealing with difficult clients. Whenever I’ve spiraled down and joined a negative or aggressive client, things go poorly and I feel anger and resentment for hours. When I stay focused and positive, regardless of whether the client follows my plan, I’m able to brush it off more easily.
Before you speak, have that tiny voice inside your head remind you how lucky you are to be following your dream and nobody’s going to take that way. Life is full of struggles; it’s the attitude we carry that make them hills or walls. Get your mind right to avoid this:
2. Poor Posture and Evading Eyes
Decades of research prove body language accounts for 60 to 85 percent of our successful interactions. Posture, facial expression and eye contact are critical factors to control when analyzing nonverbal communication. Here are some simple steps you and your staff can take to improve communication:
Stand upright, your chin level with the floor. Never slouch or hunch over an exam table or chair. Good body posture denotes confidence and intelligence and demands respect and attention.
To better transmit compassion and willingness to listen, sit or kneel just below the client’s eye level.
Slouching, however subtle, is perceived by the subconscious as disengaged and disinterested. Sitting up straight is not only good for your health, it makes you a better communicator. Your mother was right all along.
Think openness. When talking with clients, imagine yourself “open,” not “closed.” Communication is about opening, not closing, a window of opportunity. Crossing arms and legs indicates closed-mindedness and detachment. If you must cross a body part when seated, cross your ankles.
Relax your body. Don’t tap your feet or fingers when someone is talking to you. Relaxation states that you’re interested and taking time to listen. Nervous jitters indicate, “Hurry up, I’ve got to go” or “I’m uncomfortable with this. Can we talk about something else?”
Make a conscious effort to relax your expression, and avoid furrowing your brow or grimacing. This is especially important during tense or difficult interactions. Smile often. Nothing conveys friendliness, warmth and compassion like a smile. And don’t sigh. Ever. #SMH
Most of what is understood and remembered is inextricably entwined with how it is said. A focal point during communication is our eyes. Burying your eyes in a medical chart is the wrong approach.
Never explain your treatment course while writing in the medical chart. The assumption is that the client is intently listening to the doctor as she writes. That’s simply not true. The reality is the client sees a busy doctor who is hurrying to finish up and is not interested in answering questions. When someone is talking to you without looking at you, you don’t hear the person as effectively. Strive to maintain appropriate eye contact and write up your medical charts later.
Maintain eye contact with your client as much as possible. Looking directly at someone when he’s talking demonstrates attentiveness and interest. Likewise, maintaining eye contact when you’re speaking says, “This is important. Pay attention to me.”
3. Wrong Words
Once you’ve addressed your mindset and body language, recall a few verbal communication tips. While many are obvious, getting them all right all the time takes training and attention.
Employ empathy. This falls into “training the right mindset” category. Make it your goal to demonstrate genuine interest and concern in the client and patient no matter what. You don’t have to be loved to give love. Clients respond more favorably to veterinarians who they feel truly care for them and their pets and have their best interests in mind. In addition, clients refer friends and neighbors not based on a doctor’s credentials and technology but on how the veterinarian makes them feel.
Explain why. Clients are more likely to comply with your recommendations if they understand why something is needed. Use simple language and reinforce the benefit to the client and patient. For example: “Mrs. Smith, if Buster uses these eye drops every eight hours, we should be able to clear up his eye infection and the discomfort it’s causing by the end of the week.”
Don’t lecture. No one wants to be lectured by their physician, dentist or veterinarian. Use open-ended questions and actively interact with clients to determine their needs, interests and concerns. Even when repeating “the flea story” for the hundredth time, you’ve got to be convincing, interesting and dynamic. Strive to make each appointment an open, engaging, bilateral conversation between two concerned pet lovers.
Everything’s important. Acknowledge your client’s concerns no matter how trivial. Too often we dismiss a client’s concern because we, as medical professionals, can’t fathom why someone would think that way.
When it comes to dental prophylaxis, the primary reason clients don’t pursue it for their pet is the fear of anesthetic death. Try something like this: “Mrs. Smith, I understand your concerns for Fluffy and the teeth cleaning. You’re absolutely right to have questions about anesthesia. Anytime a person or pet is sedated or anesthetized, you need to be comfortable and understand what’s going on and what the risks may be. What I’d like to tell you is what we do to make sure our anesthesia is as safe as possible, because, like you, anesthesia is something I take very seriously.”
You then describe your anesthetic drugs, monitoring equipment, and trained and experienced staff members. By openly addressing the client’s concerns, you have a better chance at compliance and allaying fears. If you dismiss or ignore these issues, even if the pet owner doesn’t ask you, the client is less likely to comply and may harbor misinformed and misguided fear.
Use visual aids. A picture is truly worth a thousand words. Employ anatomical models, diagrams, computer animations and explainer videos, draw on a piece of paper — whatever teaching tools you have available to better communicate the procedure or disease process. Many diseases we explain are complicated and involve concepts that most people are unfamiliar with. Whenever possible, send the client home with pictures in hand or by email.
Write it down. Every client should leave with clearly written discharge instructions. Studies show that people retain less than 30 percent of the information they hear. Be sure your information and links are current and accurate and reflect your professionalism. Discharge reports and explanatory handouts are a direct reflection of your commitment to excellence and should be as perfect as possible.