Effective communication strategies for women-and men


Men use banter, joking, and playful put downs to establish authority. Women try to maintain an appearance of equality, downplaying their own authority while taking the other person's reactions into account. These rituals play out with both positive and negative outcomes for veterinarians.

In Talking From 9 to 5: Women and Men at Work (Harper, 1995), Deborah Tannen, PhD, describes typical gender-based conversation like this: Men use banter, joking, and playful put downs to establish authority. Women try to maintain an appearance of equality, downplaying their own authority while taking the other person's reactions into account. These rituals play out with both positive and negative outcomes. All veterinarians want a positive outcome every time, of course. Here are three ways to make it happen.

1. Help clients, help yourself

Consider how the same client recommendation can sound different when it's made by a male ("Dr. Joe") versus a female veterinarian ("Dr. Jane"). The nuts and bolts of the recommendation might sound like this:

Dr. Joe: Mrs. Miller, Jeddy needs to have his teeth cleaned. It's critical to his quality of life and will help him live longer. We have time available in the schedule next Wednesday.

Mrs. Miller to receptionist: The doctor said I need to get Jeddy's teeth cleaned right away and he has time next Wednesday to do it.

Dr. Jane: Mrs. Miller, Jeddy's mouth is starting to show signs of periodontal disease. You really need to think about getting his teeth cleaned. We'll be happy to schedule that whenever you're ready.

Mrs. Miller to receptionist: No, I don't need to schedule an appointment for cleaning today; I'll give you a call later. Sure, send me a reminder.

In the first scenario, Dr. Joe established authority and credible urgency. In the second scenario, Dr. Jane made what appeared to be a casual suggestion. When making recommendations, it's crucial for women to convey their conviction that the procedure will make a difference in the pet's health.

Another client-communication deal breaker: a lightweight or vague response when a pet owner asks "Are you sure?" in response to your explanation of a pet's condition. When answering this question, Tannen says women more often downplay their certainty, whereas men usually downplay their doubts. What feeling do you get from these statements—both of which answer the question "Are you sure?" in essentially the same way.

Answer 1: In my experience, it is most often x, but I'm going to evaluate for y and z as well.

Answer 2: Well, it could be x, y, or z. We need to take a look at everything to be sure.

The difference is subtle but significant. Women more often give answer 2, presenting a range of possibilities. Clients could interpret this to mean she lacks confidence and they shouldn't trust what she says. Simply rephrasing your answer is an easy way to improve client compliance and establish your expertise without being heavy-handed or arrogant.

2. Ask for better business relationships

It's common practice to negotiate lower rates on business-related expenses, such as merchant services accounts. But most veterinarians I work with have no idea this is even possible. I coach practice owners to say something like this:

Practice owner: I've been a good client of yours for a long time and would like a lower rate on my account.

The typical vendor response: Yes, you are a good client. I'll lower your rate on the next billing cycle.

It's that easy. I've seen it happen time and again with almost every type of practice supplier. Just like you want to keep your clients happy in order to maintain and grow your business, your suppliers want to keep you as a customer. They're usually willing to work with you, but they won't offer a lower rate unless you initiate the discussion. I've worked with several women veterinarians during the last year who've realized expense reductions in the thousands of dollars simply because they asked.

3. Talk to the team

Working with staff can be difficult for many veterinarians, regardless of gender. And if you're uncomfortable with negotiation, managing your staff members can be especially troublesome, potentially costing you thousands of dollars in diminished productivity and nearly as many hours of stress and frustration.

One of the most significant team communication challenges is handling an employee whose workplace behavior isn't up to snuff. Many practice owners tolerate poor behavior because they're afraid of "confrontation," not realizing this is actually a negotiation. Immediately bring the problem to the employee's attention with a negotiation that goes like this: "If you don't perform up to the standard, you won't keep your job." Some female owners find this harsh. You're welcome to present the statement differently, but be sure the takeaway message is the same and that it's clear and unambiguous. Softening the "negotiation" will only cause more stress—for you and the team member—in the long run.

Of course, it's best to avoid team performance issues altogether. Following these communication suggestions will help you build a top-notch team and talk to each team member effectively.

Communicate often. Hold regular staff meetings, conduct regular performance reviews, and ask team members what they're working on and how it's going.

Create clear guidelines. Write unambiguous personnel manuals, job descriptions, team competency standards, and treatment protocols.

Offer support. Don't hand a task to an inexperienced team member without establishing expectations for outcomes and providing oversight and feedback. This happens often when receptionists or technicians are promoted to practice or office manager. Without offering the right tools and training, you're setting up your team members to fail. Remember, dealing with poor performance is far more time-consuming and costly than managing acceptable performance.

Jan Miller

Jan Miller puts her communication strategies to good use as president of the consulting firm Veterinary Best Practices in Hillsboro, Ore. Send questions or comments to ve@advanstar.com

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