Cardinal rules for building effective communication

dvm360dvm360 April 2023
Volume 54
Issue 4
Pages: 44

Positive interactions with practice staff can mean stronger relationships with clients

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Communicating effectively is not second nature to many individuals—and it can be especially lacking given that interacting with animals seems easier than doing so with humans. Many veterinary professionals do not enter the industry because they are extroverts.

Veterinary medicine is not the career for truly antisocial personalities, however. That sort of mentality will severely hinder effective communication and overall team success. So how can we succeed if relating to individuals is not our thing?

Effective communication is so much more than talking; it is the ability to relay thoughts and ideas in a manner that can be understood and accepted by others. Good communication skills include being able to provide constructive criticism and accept critical feedback.

An individual who is communicating must be confident in the ideas being presented, and the material should be well prepared. Effective communication skills include speaking with a strong, clear voice so the listener can hear without straining; making eye contact; and exhibiting welcoming facial expressions and nonthreatening body language. A skilled communicator is empathetic, respectful, and a good listener.

Importantly, both presenter and audience are responsible for effective communication. One must deliver information in ways that can be easily understood, and the other parties must listen to the message. Let us explore these points in a practice setting.

Within the team

BE CLEAR: Unclear communication can cause many problems. Telling a new technician “It’s over there” while waving an arm in the general direction of the clippers does not qualify as effective communication. It is better to say, “Amy, would you please get me the clippers on the counter to your left? They should be on the charger next to the computer.”

By giving clear directions or asking for specific help, everyone avoids becoming frustrated, confused, or angry. Even during busy times, taking a few extra seconds to provide clear communication can make everything
flow smoothly.

In the clipper scenario, not being clear causes confusion (where are the clippers kept), frustration (help is not coming fast enough), and insecurity (they cannot perform the task properly). With clear communication, the new team member knows what is needed, where to find it, and is confident that they can bring it to you. Clearly stating what you need helps the technician focus on what is being done instead of thinking about the 3 other things that need to be done, allowing the current task to be completed with intention and attention, which is the best practice all around.

BE PRECISE: This may seem the same as being clear, but it is different in the respect that we need to create our sentences with intention and meaning. Being precise grabs and holds someone’s attention. It is also likely to be more memorable and make a lasting impact. Learning how to use your words properly is a skill that needs to be practiced.

Although it may take longer to give clear and precise directions than to say, “It’s over there,” the inevitable searching and confusion in looking for the clippers will take more time. Precise communication in a clinic setting saves precious time.

BE COURTEOUS: The spirit in which one provides advice or instruction matters. When your attitude indicates that you are coming from the position of being helpful and supportive, even constructive criticism will rarely come across the wrong way. Teams are built by members helping one another and being there to encourage and support individual growth. It does not matter whether you are helping someone complete an ear cytology or teaching a process within the clinic. All team members should be treated with courtesy and respect.

In training situations, what might seem obvious to you needs to be taught so that everyone understands. Clear, concise language and thoughtful sentence structure will go far in educating all team members, but a respectful manner will result in a crew happy to learn. This way, mundane tasks will become more interesting and important.

With your clients

Routine for in-hospital communication

Effective communication 101: Daily interactions involving team, client, and patient

Introduction: While making eye contact, greet your client with a warm hello and then greet your tail-wagging patient. Pay attention to the patient because every client loves their favorite friend having a fan club. Focus on the pet while getting a history as well.

The treatment: While in the examination room, ask questions to drill down on the reason for the visit. Listen carefully and make notes as necessary. After the exam, let the client know what steps are next: “We are going to take Paws McGee to the treatment area to get some samples; we will bring him right back to you” or “We will be right back with the vaccines to get Tootsie all up-to-date for doggy day care.” Communicate while the pet is being treated; the doctor or the technician should be telling the client exactly what is happening.

Post treatment: Review everything that was done and advise the client of any adverse effects that might occur, precautions that should be taken, or medications that need to be given. Ask clients whether they understand or whether they need to be shown how to do anything. This is where teaching moments appear—use them.

Discharge: Cover questions and concerns and double-check that the patient does not need anything else. Know what prevention patients get, whether they are on any medications for chronic issues, or if they love the dental treats.

UNDERSTANDING: Because we are professionals who empathize with the pets, it is not unusual to hear comments such as “I do not understand why they waited to come in” or “They should have...” It is vital that your clinic’s team understands that remarks like these are not appropriate in the clinic. They do not offer any help toward providing quality care or passing on information to the client. It must be understood that the client does not know what we know as professionals, and it is an essential part of our job to educate the client.

Clear, concise information and instructions could mean life or death for a pet. Remember that listening is part of understanding clients; it is just as important as them understanding you.

Imagine yourself as a client; think about what you (as a client) would have done in a specific situation without the knowledge you currently possess as a professional. It is quite a different perspective. Be empathetic.

BE FRIENDLY/CARING: This should be the easy part. We are in a caring profession, and we love what we do. Pass on that caring attitude to clients; they have entrusted their pets to us.

Effective communication will strengthen a clinic relationship and can turn your client into a friend. By using practiced communication skills, every team member can help build trust in your clinic. An educated client can understand what course of care is recommended and can carry out their part of the protocol.

How many of your team members have clients who request them as the technician or trust them to the point that they do not need to speak with the GP? These relationships can only be formed when clear lines of communication have been established, and they should be encouraged and nurtured. Challenge everyone on your team to develop their communication skills and encourage them to engage, interact, bond, and have fun with their clients.

BE INFORMATIVE/TRANSPARENT: Effective communication is the only way to achieve the trust that creates a loyal client base, so learning to be clear, concise, and courteous in all communication is vital. When speaking to clients about what we suspect (or know) to be going on with a pet and the treatments we recommend, we must be open and honest. Moreover, we must communicate with clients in terms they understand. Although they must listen, part of “clear and concise” means checking for their comprehension of the matter. You must also ask questions until you are certain you have met their needs.

There will be times when you must tell a client, “I do not have a clear answer, but this is what we do know.” Although this can be frustrating, it does indicate honesty. Again, be clear about what you do or do not know, be concise in mapping your plan, and be courteous to clients who might not like what they are hearing. Being transparent in your assessment and your treatment plan allows the client to understand that things may not go as hoped and that another visit or two might be needed. They will not be surprised or disturbed when they must bring their pet back to the clinic in a few weeks.

General tips

  • Cardinal rule: Treat others as you would want to be treated.
  • Use names, especially for the pet: We joke about knowing the pet more than the owner—use that. Clients usually understand and laugh.
  • Review the chart: Make new notes as needed.
  • Be open and honest: Know what is being discussed and be confident in the knowledge.
  • Have options from the doctor: In the event a client cannot afford a recommended treatment or just wants option B, be prepared.


Sharpen your skills by asking someone you trust for a communication critique. An honest associate should be a great help in identifying areas that could use improvement. Like anything else, practice is required to master a skill set.

Have fun with communication at work—find games and activities to encourage effective communication. Charades, Taboo, blindfold stroll, or 20 questions are just a few options. A communication game can be a good lunchtime activity or the basis of a fun team meeting.

Sabrina Beck, CVT, CVBL, is a learning and development manager who has practiced as a credentialed technician in day practice, and in emergency in private and university settings, and in the eye care specialty. She worked as a practice manager for the past 5 years and realized her true passion is developing a happy, healthy, and productive team. She lives in Florida with her husband and a menagerie of animals that continuously grows.

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