Much like when we visit a doctor’s office, a visit to a veterinary office with our cherished pet is chock full of interpersonal communication situations, signs, and hidden meanings. Going to the vet’s office, whether for a scheduled check-up or an emergency, can present a number of opportunities for us to interact with office staff, veterinarians and veterinary technicians, and fellow customers. In addition, the animals themselves get a chance to size each other up and engage in their own type of communication that only they can truly understand.
Conversely, as veterinary professionals, we often have to make quick judgments on clients and their unique situations through a variety of verbal and non-verbal communications. Clients may be in a relaxed, calm mood, or they can be in a state of panic and distress that likely will cause confusion for the staff, as well as for other customers. Every situation is unique, and being able to proactively manage any encounter through effective recognition of messages delivered through verbal or non-verbal prompts is essential to the creation of a warm and nurturing atmosphere.

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Clients and “patients”, whether they may be dogs, cats, birds, etc., are constantly giving off signals and prompts that are designed to elicit a response. What is critical here is the type of response given, despite any preconceived notions and biases that we may have within our complex personality traits.

Whatever the particular situation may be when interacting with a client, the overriding key is to enhance our observations and then, to the best of our ability, ensure the client’s (and pet’s) safety and confidence, which will, in turn, create a greater motivation for the pet owner to become more active in their pet’s care (Carson, 2007).

Interpretation and Application of Communication Techniques
When clients first enter the veterinary office, whether they are repeat customers or arriving for the first time, there often is an air of uncertainty in their actions. They will walk up to the reception desk and either wait patiently until they are asked to sign in, or they can be impatient and demand immediate action from the office and veterinary staff. It is up to the staff to assess the client’s situation and display a modicum of calmness and professionalism in order to build mutual trust.

Veterinarians are increasingly receiving extensive training in recognizing verbal and non-verbal gestures and signals from clients so that they can assess what is going on with the pet while gaining information from the owner (Kim, 2009). They are trained through role-playing and classroom discussion on displaying care, respect, and empathy (Shadle, 2013) in order to (hopefully) achieve the desired result – wellness for the pet.

During busy times in the office, clients can portray a sense of impatience, especially if their pet is ill or injured. They may be seated with their arms folded in an aggressive or angry manner, and may be speaking in a clipped tone. Obviously, the office staff and veterinary team will have to take steps in order to diffuse the situation and quickly communicate a treatment plan that will put the client at ease.

There may be instances where a client will be required to fill out information about their pet, which can be a tedious exercise, so it is often a good practice to inform the client that this action must be taken in order to ensure the most accurate and up-to-date information about their pet is entered into the office’s patient database. They also may be provided with handouts and/or brochures in order to learn more about the practice and its policies, their pet’s particular condition, or general pet-health information.

The above situation could be interpreted as either an opportunity to provide valuable information to the client, or it may be viewed as a way to pass the time while waiting for their appointed time to see the veterinarian (Kim, 2009).

There also are times where both veterinary office staff and clients have preconceived notions and prejudices about one another. For example, a client may come into the office with a pit bull, and although the dog itself may have a gentle manner, there may be a sense of suspicion, even fear, displayed by both fellow clients and staff due to the aggressive behavior this breed can exhibit.

There are certainly a number of occasions where a sense of untrustworthiness between the client and the veterinary staff openly exists between the client and members of the staff. Factors may include, but are not limited to, unfamiliarity with the client and their pet, the sense of urgency or distress that may be apparent, and the type of attitudes/behaviors that are exhibited by both parties. Again, this would most likely depend on the situation that is presented, and it certainly would be a good practice to cultivate a sense of trust so that the examination can take place in a positive light.

Lastly, the ability to practice reflecting listening by repeating or paraphrasing what clients tell the medical team will show interest in their thoughts and feelings (Garrett, 2014). Utilizing the variety of interpersonal communication skills will ultimately benefit the patient, the client, and the practice.

    References
  • Carson, C. (2007, January). Nonverbal communication in veterinary practice. [Abstract]. Vet
    Clin North Am Small Anim Pract, 37(1), 49-63. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17162111.
  • Kim, T. (2009, May 4). Veterinary medicine embraces interpersonal skills training. VIN News Service. Retrieved from http://news.vin.com/VINNews.aspx?articleId=12784.
  • Shadle, C. (2013, March 1). Empathy in the veterinary clinic. High Performance Vets. Retrieved from http://www.highperformancevets.com/veterinary-communication/empathy-in-the-veterinary-clinic.
  • Garrett, L. (2014, July 1). Client communication: a procedure you can master. Practitioner Updates/Veterinary Clinical Medicine. Retrieved from http://vetmed.illinois.edu/client-communication-procedure-can-master/.