Are you speaking pet owners' language?

August 4, 2017
Mike Paul, DVM
Mike Paul, DVM

Dr. Paul is the former executive director of the Companion Animal Parasite Council and a former president of the American Animal Hospital Association. He is currently the principal of MAGPIE Veterinary Consulting. He is retired from practice and lives in Anguilla, British West Indies.

You can brush up on slang, dialect, accents and weird vocabulary to reach pet owners in the exam room. But the best way to be understood in veterinary practice is always, first, to listen.

This cat is trying to understand you. She's listening ... ("Seek first to understand, then to be understood." - Steven Covey

Listening is one of the most important, most underused and most underrated interpersonal skills we possess. If we could learn to listen and to understand the perspectives of others-family, coworkers, customers and other stakeholders-we could improve interpersonal relationships, boost the quality of our life experiences and get better results in our lives.

“But I'm a good listener!” you say. Are you?

Listening isn't easy to master. Listening-really listening-takes genuine interest. It's not just being quiet while someone else talks; it requires valuing that person and what they think. Too often we're busy focusing on our planned response to what someone else is saying. We may hear their words, but do we really understand what they're trying to say?

In veterinary practice, differences in language, idiom and dialect as well as vocabulary can result in huge communication gaps that lead to misunderstanding, poor compliance and undesired results as well as poor client experiences and satisfaction. It's understandably challenging to communicate when two people speak a different language, but even when we think we speak the same language, do we really?

Some years ago I participated in a veterinary conference in Canada attended by leaders from associations scattered across the British Commonwealth. There were attendees from Great Britain, Scotland, Ireland and Wales as well as Australia and New Zealand. Here were a dozen veterinarians who shared a common profession but who, as George Bernard Shaw said, were “separated by a common language.” I remember a cocktail party where I listened intently to a number of English-speaking people and asked myself, “What did he say?”

On a recent trip to the British Isles, I heard English spoken with Welsh, Gaelic and Scottish lilts as well as God knows how many dialects in England. These languages are the origins of the English spoken in America, but toss in a few regional accents and colloquialisms and it's hard to tell where English begins and ends. Now think about the United States, where words from every continent have found their way into conversational English, and it's a wonder we Yanks can communicate at all.

After 16 years living in Anguilla, I'm still learning words and phrases that find their way into conversations. If people are judged untrustworthy, they're scamps, and if someone's a really bad dude, he or she's a wicked person. An outspoken, obnoxious person is hard. Referring to someone as disgusting is about as insulting as it gets.

Older folks drink a locally picked herbal tea called bush tea, and romancing someone is called talking. Taking a cutting from a bush is to catch. To borrow a match or cigarette is to catch a fire. To hitchhike is to catch a lift so you can carry me.

My personal favorite is go to come back-when you leave a place but intend to be back-and when told you'll see someone again soon, they invariably reply, “God spare life.”

In conversations with veterinary clients, finding the right words can be a challenge. Is it more proper to say shot or injection? Is it better to say worms or parasites? Is feces more appropriate than poop?

The point of all of this is to show that words don't always mean what we think they mean and certainly are not always understood as we intend. Learn to listen. People who are good at understanding tend to be good at reading emotional cues from nonverbal communication, body language and tone of voice. A blank look speaks volumes.

Focus on what people are saying. As Ernest Hemingway admonished us, “When people talk, listen completely. Most people never listen.” And as Covey perhaps said it best, “Listen with the intent to understand, not the intent to reply.”

Dr. Mike Paul is the former executive director of the Companion Animal Parasite Council and a former president of the American Animal Hospital Association. He is currently the principal of MAGPIE Veterinary Consulting. He lives in Anguilla, British West Indies.