Veterinary personnel spend a good part of the workday speaking to clients: explaining procedures, discussing treatment options, offering advice, and calming and soothing concerns and fears. So much communication is centered around very significant issues. What is said is only as effective as what the client takes away. When transmitting essential information, the quality of the content and efficacy of the team’s delivery is critical. Periodically evaluating the message and coaching speakers can contribute to better communication and improved compliance. Failure to do so can result in information gaps, misunderstandings, mistakes, and damage staff/client relationships.
When conversing, it is important to be in the moment by trying to zero in on the client and getting a vibe for what they are feeling and thinking. Getting inside the client’s head is neither advisable nor possible but picking up on the clues they may unconsciously be sending can provide valuable information, which can be used to adjust speaking style to ensure the client is more receptive to the message.
Actions can speak louder than words. According to researchers, actions can represent a listener’s reaction even before any words are spoken. We’ve all experienced it: the client whose eyes are glued to the cell phone as the patient’s condition is discussed, the one who can’t suppress an unconscious eye roll as recommendations are reviewed, or the pet owner who appears to be listening intently but seems to be asleep with eyes wide open! Nope, none of these clients are listening as the words of wisdom that are spoken evaporate without anyone hearing them.
Stepping up communications
Although it can be difficult and frustrating to work with clients when their attention seems to be elsewhere, there are actions that staff can take to ensure they are being heard. Generally, speakers who are transparent, self-aware, empathetic, and flexible are more likely to connect with their audience.
When conversations are transparent, the speaker is clear about the message and its purpose. It’s not uncommon for people who are uncomfortable with the message they are delivering to talk around the issue, make excuses and apologize for being the messenger, or address their perception of the clients’ reactions before they have even responded. The antidote is simple---the message is the message. Deliver it straight, with a side of kindness and compassion. Being unclear and delaying the inevitable will only confuse and frustrate the client.
Communicators who are self-aware recognize that their thoughts, emotions, and behaviors affect others. Everyone has a difficult day once in a while; however, a self-aware employee understands that personal difficulties should not impinge on the staff/client relationship and, therefore, is careful not to allow misplaced anger, personal problems, and other emotions to invade their conversations. Self-awareness allows employees to be comfortable in their skin so that they can relate to others with confidence and kindness.
Empathy is a broad concept and underscores a person’s ability to understand another’s thoughts and feelings in a situation—not from their own perspective--but from the perspective of another. Empathy is stepping into another person’s shoes. It differs from sympathy in that empathy is characterized by being vulnerable and sincerely connecting with others.
Researchers have identified three types of empathy---cognitive, emotional, and compassionate----all of which are important to communication.
- Cognitive empathy involves taking the perspective of the other person---knowing how they feel and what they may be thinking.
- Emotional empathy has a physical component to it because it is means being able to physically experience emotions others are feeling.
- Compassionate empathy includes understanding, feeling, and being motivated to act, if necessary.
Empathy can be learned but it needs to be practiced before it becomes intuitive.
The flexible communicator understands that not all clients can be approached in the same way. Armed with a message, the flexible speaker is capable of adapting the delivery to meet the needs of the client. For example, if the client is shy and introverted, pausing the presentation and providing opportunities for questions can be helpful. If the client is impatient and busy, a pointed, concise message delivered with just the facts may be the best strategy for reaching this type of personality.
To help employees improve their interactions with clients, focus on practice and feedback.
Practice can take the form of working with the team and polling the group for comments and feedback. Of course, all sessions should be characterized by non-threatening, supportive feedback.
Role playing and videotaping these interactions, reviewing them with the employee, and offering constructive feedback can also be effective. But feedback is a two-way street. Management must be open and receptive to comments from employees that pertain to the message, as well as its delivery.
We all know the importance of communication. There are many strategies for upping the communication game. They pertain to specific industries or particular programs. In the veterinary industry, one example is the Opportunity Tool offered through Partners for Health Pets (PHP) for practices that are committed to become Preventive Pet Healthcare Champions. The Opportunity Tool is designed to assess and improve staff/client communications. For more information about the confidential, online survey, go to the PHP website.