By Laura Garrett, DVM, DACVIM (Oncology)
Studies have documented many ways the practitioner’s communication skills benefit the patient, the client, and the practice.
Communication improves history taking, which leads to better diagnoses. Human medical studies show that good communication improves understanding of and adherence to recommendations, improves loyalty and satisfaction (which improves clinical outcomes), and decreases malpractice risk.
If you approach client communication as a procedure— actually, it’s the most common procedure you perform—you can work to improve your communication skills as you would with any other skill.
Use these tips to hone client communication skills.
Look for Cues
A large part of all communication is nonverbal—and unintentional. If you know how to read these nonverbal cues, you can tell what a client is thinking or feeling—which may contradict what they’re saying. Paying attention to a client’s tone of voice, facial expression, and posture will allow you to clarify the situation before a critical misunderstanding occurs.
Show Your Empathy
It’s not enough to imagine what a client is feeling. You must show that you empathize. Doing that may involve commenting on something about your client unrelated to their pet’s medical concerns or on the emotions they’re experiencing about their pet. For example, try stating what you see: “You look nervous.”
Empathetic listening is a process of actively responding to what clients are saying, either verbally or nonverbally (through appropriate facial expressions, nodding, making eye contact, and so on).
Intentionally making statements to help clients feel accepted is another technique for showing empathy. These include nonjudgmental statements (“You were placed in a very difficult situation”), normalizing statements (“It’s so common for pet owners to miss these masses”) and self-disclosing statements (“My cat has behavioral issues, too”).
Ask Open-Ended Questions
This technique will help you not only to obtain an accurate history but also to assess clients’ understanding preferences, and goals for diagnostics and treatments.
Closed-ended questions begin with words such as when, is, did, who, and where and often result in one-word answers. Begin open-ended questions with what or how. (Avoid why, because it can sound accusatory.) Start your client visits with a broad question, such as “What’s been going on?”
Also remember this rule of thumb: Ask, don’t tell. In presenting the diagnosis, ask what the client knows about the disease rather than jumping into a description. This shows the client you value her knowledge and helps in deciding where to begin your client education.
Repeat After Them
Reflective listening is a technique involving repeating what clients say or imply, thus showing interest in their thoughts and feelings. By paraphrasing clients’ meaning, you show empathy and clarify their understanding. You may start these responses with standard phrases such as “So, you’re saying that…” and “It sounds like…” Reflective listening can also be communicated nonverbally, with nods and smiles.
If you want a pet owner to expound without your input, try repeating the client’s last word or phrase. If a client says, “Momo has just been acting crazy,” you may respond with a simple, “Crazy?” The pet owner will instinctively elaborate for you.
Employing these techniques takes concentration and effort, but over time the use of intentional communication will become more natural and will help to improve your interactions with your clients.
Read Dr. Garrett’s full article at go.illinois.edu/comm/
This article appeared in rvetILLINOIS Vol. 1, Issue 5.