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The Unspoken Truth

What are your clients not saying? Veterinary team members must watch for and decode a pet owner’s nonverbal communication and know how to respond.

The Unspoken Truth
Pet owners can signal their thoughts and feelings through nonverbal communication.

I’m sure you’ve people-watched in an airport, restaurant or park. Even if you can’t hear their conversations, you easily form impressions of what the people might be thinking or feeling. If a couple are holding hands, you think they must be in love. If a teenager has his arms crossed and is scowling, you assume he is angry or upset. If a child is smiling while playing catch with her dad, you know she is having a good time. Nonverbal communication can be just as important, if not more powerful, as verbal communication. Regardless of what we say, our body language tells a story. Veterinary teams that pay attention to clients’ nonverbal communication can build trust and strengthen the relationship.

The Team

Studies show that people form impressions of others quickly, sometimes within seconds. Therefore, everyone on the practice team must create a positive first impression. The goal is to use nonverbal communication that conveys interest in and compassion toward pet owners.

Here are five ways for you to be perceived as likable by clients.

  • Smile: Forgetting to smile is easy when you’re busy. Smiling when you greet pet owners can put them at ease. The smile needs to be genuine rather than forced because people can tell the difference. Smiling with your eyes wrinkles their corners and raises your cheeks.
  • Eye contact: Team members sometimes are so focused on a computer screen or medical chart that they forget to look at a client. To connect with pet owners, maintain eye contact upon the initial meeting and periodically during the appointment. Remember that glancing at someone is not the same as a gaze.
  • Eyebrow raise or eyebrow flash: Raising your eyebrows tends to open your eyes and show that you’re happy to see the person. When accompanied by a smile, head nod and relaxed posture, the eyebrow flash can demonstrate interest in the other person and convey agreement. An eyebrow flash can be a sign of flirtation, so team members must be careful to limit this nonverbal communication.
  • Body posture: Facing a client while your arms are relaxed helps convey interest and friendliness. Team members should avoid crossed arms and hunched shoulders.
  • Body position: Leaning slightly forward indicates that you’re interested in the other person and have a desire to listen.

Another valuable part of nonverbal communication is recognizing where you are physically in relation to the client, especially during a difficult conversation. A doctor who uses a wheeled stool can easily move it in the exam room and sit when the client is seated. Ideally, sit perpendicular to the client, forming an L-shape.

A team member will find that focusing on the client during a conversation is easier when both are sitting. It also helps clients feel as though they are partners in their pets’ care. A seated client might feel intimidated and less likely to ask questions if a team member is standing while reviewing a treatment plan or delivering bad news.

Team members should make sure that the nonverbal communication matches the verbal messages. For example, folded arms, frowning or a forced smile might indicate impatience and frustration with the client or pet, even if you say something positive. Likewise, a reassuring statement doesn’t convey the same compassion when your hand is on the doorknob, signaling a desire to leave.

The Client

Pet owners can signal their thoughts and feelings through nonverbal communication. For example, glancing at a watch or cellphone, pacing, folding arms, and standing near the door can indicate the client is in a hurry or unhappy about the wait time. Angry people might stand with their hands on the hips, frown or clench fists. Sad people might cry, tremble their lips or look downward. Clients who are afraid or uncomfortable might be reluctant to talk, clutch the pet or fidget in a chair.

A client’s eyebrows can express emotions besides happiness. For example, a client who furrows the brow or raises one eyebrow might be confused, irritated, skeptical or disagreeable. Be sure to watch for such nonverbal communications, which can be fleeting.

Team members who consciously interpret a pet owner’s body language can make stronger connections, leading to greater client loyalty and compliance. Being keenly aware of body language is only half the battle. The other half is knowing how to respond to nonverbal communication.

What Clients Aren’t Saying

You’ve undoubtedly seen clients whose nonverbal communication indicated they were irritated and in a hurry. For many team members, the response is to rush. Unfortunately, the reaction might not be perceived favorably and won’t validate the pet owner’s feelings. Moreover, mistakes can occur, and client education is likely to suffer.

A more appropriate response is to be direct and say, “Mr. Taylor, I noticed you looking at your watch, and I know you’ve been here awhile. Are you on a tight timetable?” Assuming the client agrees, team members have an opportunity to convey compassion and problem-solve. An excellent response is, “I’m so sorry you had to wait. I know that is frustrating, and your time is valuable. Would it work better for you to leave Jake with us and pick him up later today after your next appointment?”

Since nonverbal communication is often more indicative of people’s thoughts and feelings than what is said, verbally acknowledging body language is essential. For example, a client leaving a pet for surgery might not verbalize fear, but the emotion might be written all over the person’s face. In this instance, a team member could say, “I know you might be nervous. Rest assured, we will take great care of Ginger and call you when she is recovering from anesthesia.”

Nonverbal communication can be ambiguous, so try to avoid assuming what pet owners are thinking or feeling. Instead, don’t be afraid to check in with clients about their emotions. One way to respond appropriately is to ask an open-ended question such as “Tell me how you’re feeling about Jake’s diagnosis?” or “What questions do you have about the next steps for Jake’s treatment?” Another way to uncover a client’s feelings is to use reflective listening statements such as “I’m sensing you’re concerned about Tigger’s response to treatment” or “I imagine this is a lot to think about.” These questions and statements generally encourage clients to open up about their feelings.

Paying attention to clients’ nonverbal communication and responding appropriately ultimately helps more pets get the care they deserve.

Talk the Talk columnist Dr. Amanda L. Donnelly is a speaker, business consultant and second-generation veterinarian. She combines her practice experience and business expertise to help veterinarians communicate better with their teams and clients. She is the author of “101 Practice Management Questions Answered.” Learn more at amandadonnellydvm.com.


Proxemics is the study of spatial separation during human interaction. Researchers define the four zones as intimate (0 to 18 inches), personal (18 inches to 4 feet), social (4 to 12 feet) and public (more than 12 feet). According to Psychology Today, personal distance “is generally reserved for significant others and friends” and social space “for more formal interactions.”