Effective Veterinary Team Communications

January 10, 2017

Team members engaging in empathetic, active listening may experience higher job satisfaction, offer improved patient care and increase client satisfaction.

Your veterinary team may benefit from reviewing the basics in effective communication.

“What we have here is… failure to communicate,” states Captain in the classic movie Cool Hand Luke, although I hear similar comments from managers, all the time. Commonly requested in-hospital training is based on improving communication skills between team members and clients.

Success in your career (regardless of your role or position) comes from effectively communicating. There is no one greater skill that will boost your career, relationships and job satisfaction.

From my observations individuals who listen well, really listen, are good communicators. Individuals who display open body language, are empathetic and actively listen communicate well. To communicate well means you understand the other person and that person understands you. Your presence is inviting and sincere.

These tips may seem basic in nature, but take a quick inventory and assess how well you engage in the actions to improve your effectiveness in communication.

Body Language

Every day your body language influences the way you are perceived and heard. Facial expressions, posture, movements, attire and eye contact influence your ability to express yourself with confidence and continuity. 75% or more of your communication is nonverbal!

“Studies indicate you have 4 seconds to make a good first impression on those you come in contact with. And this is used as a yardstick for all future communication by those whom you meet. You can’t make a good first impression through your words alone. In fact, nonverbal communication is between 60 to 75% of the impact of a communication. But despite being the most important aspect, body language is also the most misunderstood and misinterpreted. You could be making the most wonderful compliments or praise to people, but it’s difficult to gain their trust or approval if your words contradict with your body language,” reports Kevin Hogan, PsyD, a leading expert in body language, persuasion and sales.

When speaking with someone, relax, engage, lean forward, loosen up “tight” clothing, be comfortable, open your arms and be inviting. When listening, nod, engage, lean forward, and relax. Be aware of each person’s comfort zone. Pay attention to nonverbal clues indicating you are too close, not getting your point across, or “pushing buttons.” Eyebrows, frowns, smiles, nose twitches are all nonverbal clues that will let you know if your conversation is being accepted or rejected.

Empathy Statements

“Many people are terrified of empathy. Maybe we fear it’s on the edge of counseling. Or maybe because it doesn’t feel like it fits in the clinical realm. Don’t fool yourself. Empathy statements are the strongest ingredient in building relationships with people. There’s no formula for when to use them. Look for opportunities to communicate your understanding of some situation, dilemma or conflict. We don’t use this technique nearly enough and that’s a shame. Practicing empathy makes for a more efficient visit and helps clients feel more connected,” coaches Cindy Adams, MSW, PhD.

What is empathy?

Empathy is defined as having the same experience as another person and feeling the same pain, anguish, joy, exuberance as they did. For example: If you lost a beloved pet and there was a family in the exam room who recently euthanized their beloved pet, then you could empathize with them. The confusion lies with sympathy. For example: If you have never had a spouse come home from the war then you could not empathize with the wife of a soldier that just returned. You could sympathize with her; however, you could not empathize with her.

Creating strong relationships with co-workers and clients occurs when you can have heartfelt conversations, enriching bonds of trust and understanding. Sincere, lasting connections are made when candid, casual conversations transcend to higher levels of acceptance without judgment. When you practice empathetic statements, and reach a point of consciously engaging in deeper conversations, you will naturally become more confident in your own skin. Every day, challenge yourself to be empathetic with a client, a team member or family member. It’s good for your soul. Listen to their story, reflect upon the experience, and add your empathetic statement (not your entire story), then listen, again.

Active Listening

You have probably spent years learning how to read, write and speak. How much time have you spent learning how to listen? Practicing active listening elevates all your relationships; those at work, at home and with relatives. Another challenge; focus once a day on actively listening.

There are three components to active listening:

  1. Receive the message
  2. Process the message
  3. Respond to the message

Listen and look for the total visual and auditory message. Listen for the entire message. If you are thinking about what you will say, you are not actively listening. Stop whatever you are doing, look at the person who is speaking to you, establish eye contact, and focus on listening. You are disengaged when you are thinking of a response, talking at the same time or distracted. You are disengaged when you ask a question without allowing the other person time to respond. Focus, once a day, on one conversation and see how it feels to actively listen and be engaged.

Give yourself some time to evaluate the conversation, analyze and process the message. Adopt a relaxed body posture, relaxed tone of voice and soft facial expression.

Mirror the conversation, let the speaker know you have not only heard what was said, but that you understood what was said.  Your co-worker, family member or relative will appreciate your reflection. Try this approach with your children, too!

“What you are telling me is….”

“Let me see if I heard you correctly….”

“It sounds like you felt….”

“I hear you experienced….”

When you do find yourself disengaged, daydreaming, fidgeting, reading or some other way of not actively listening, there are ways of correcting the situation. Refocus; make a conscious choice to engage. Once the person is finished with their statement, admit you were disengaged. “I was truly thinking of something else, please repeat what you said.”

“I apologize; I was not paying close attention. Will you please explain your position, again?”

You may feel this is rather awkward, at first. You will be surprised by the new-found respect that is shared during the thoughtful exchange. Give it a try. What do you have to lose?

Respond to the message with complete engagement. Eye contact, leaning forward and present.

It is respectful to write down what a person is conveying. Imagine how fewer mistakes will occur if you wrote down the veterinarian’s orders instead of banking on your brain to remember? If it is important, write it down! Even when you are talking on the phone and a client is relaying information you are to pass onto your doctor, explain to the person on the other end that you are taking notes. They will appreciate your extra effort, the message is more accurate and the doctor gets a written transcript of the conversation. A win/win situation.

 Your career will be elevated when you seriously and objectively look at your present communication skills; assess your body language, begin empathizing with clients and co-workers and actively listen. Attend seminars offered by veterinary consultants, career organizations and colleges.

Practice makes progress. If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again! Become the communications expert at your workplace and home.

Yours in Effective Communication,

Rebecca Rose, CVT

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About the author

Rebecca Rose, CVT is the founder and president of CATALYST Veterinary Practice Consultants. She has 30 years of involvement in the veterinary industry, including experience as a veterinary practice management consultant, a practice manager at two AAHA-accredited animal hospitals, and as an award-winning veterinary technician.


The Communication Funnel-Know it, Use it. Cindy Adams, MWS, PhD

Team Satisfaction Pays, Organizational Development for Practice Success. Dr. Carin Smith. Smith Veterinary Consulting and Publishing. 2008

Listening with Empathy: Creating Genuine Connections With Customers and Colleagues. John Selby. Hampton Roads Publishing Company, Inc. 2007

The Joy of Conflict Resolution: Transforming Victims, Villains and Heroes in the Workplace and at Home. Gary Harper. New Society Publishers. 2004