When our pets become ill and need medical attention, the pet owner has important information – such as noticeable symptoms, changes in appetite, bathroom habits, lethargy, etc. While many people are up to the task of reporting key facts to their veterinarian, others may not be able be able to and need the help of their veterinarian to elicit this vital information. Consequently, in addition to taking charge of the sick pet, the veterinarian needs to be able to “communicate” effectively with the pet owner about proper medication administration and follow up visits.
Interestingly, I recently had the opportunity to attend a two-day seminar on this very topic – client communications – offered by the Argus Institute at Colorado State University’s Veterinary Teaching Hospital. The focus of this program was to teach compassionate communications to veterinary professionals like my 49 fellow attendees and myself.
Although we were being taught compassionate communications, it seemed more like communications boot camp to me. After some fun and energizing group activities, we were divided into groups of 5, assigned a coach and a video camera. Typically, I am not at a loss for words, but the clipboards full of grading sheets and a video camera pointed at my head rendered me close to mute. I knew in advance of attending “trained actors” would pose as clients us to practice our skills. Being a skeptical New Yorker, I said to myself “How good could they be?”.
Turns out they were truly talented actors whose mission it was to convince us all that they were clients reacting to various situations involving their pets. One actor client only stared at his shoes and in response to my 1000 questions only revealed his dog was his first and he wasn’t sure what it was that was wrong.. I became so frustrated, I had to take a break and get help from my peers as to how to steer the conversation. The group practiced reflective listening or parroting back what the pet owner has said to be sure we heard correctly and practiced pausing to allow the client to express their concerns. We learned to ask open ended questions. Instead of saying “Is your pet lethargic?”, we learned to ask “What is different about your pet?” allowing the owner to tell their story.
Over the 2 days, each group met 10 different pet owners, each one testing our new skills. I came home determined to do a better job at listening to my clients and letting them talk. Better communication results in better pet owner compliance with medical recommendations and better compliance means healthier pets. Knowing this, how could I not work to improve my communication skills? This isn’t easy and won’t happen overnight, but if you visit your veterinarian and the visit seems different – if now it’s a conversation, not an interrogation – ask if he/she has participated in one of these seminars. They will be thrilled you notice a difference.