How Words Impact Your Practice Culture


The words we use when speaking with coworkers and clients can incite camaraderie or acrimony. Here’s how to watch what you say.

Communicating with Clients

“Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” We all learned this as children, but now know it to be untrue. Words can hurt. The words we choose are important in establishing a culture of appreciation and teamwork, and in increasing morale and motivation throughout a veterinary practice. Being aware of how each person’s communication habits affect clients and the team is the first step in building a stress-free work environment.

Neuroscience has taught us that positive communication produces a “feel-good” chemical known as dopamine in the brain of the receiver. Dopamine provides a sense of elation, increases adrenaline, and makes the listener feel confident. Conversely, cortisol is released when an individual encounters a negative message or is put in an uncomfortable or threatening situation. Cortisol generates feelings of anxiety, increases heart rate, and alerts the individual to leave the situation.


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Armed with this information, it behooves us to recognize the potential positive or negative impact of what we say.


Beginning a sentence with “don’t do that” or “you shouldn’t” tends to send a negative, critical message. There are many times when you want to tell your colleague or client what not to do, but this misses the opportunity to tell them what you want them to do. Using positive instead of negative terms provides encouragement and possibly new and needed information.


“If you hadn’t…then…” is a strategy often used to defend or promote your own desires, hoping the other person will give in and agree. Sometimes blaming is a way to attempt to control another person’s behavior. In either case, it puts the person being blamed on the defensive and may invite an argument rather than a learning opportunity. You may be right in who is at fault, but starting a conversation in a blaming tone will likely thwart an opportunity to get to the bottom of the problem. More important than assigning blame is winning cooperation. This requires continuing communication in which understanding and, perhaps, new learning can take place.


“Put this…,” “Don’t leave…” Even delivered in a soft tone, these phrases indicate an order. Most of us don’t want to be bossed around, and we often perceive the person issuing the order as bossy. A more acceptable way to state your wishes is to indicate what it is that you need or want. “I need to be able to find….” Adding how you feel about the situation makes the conversation more personal: “I’m feeling very anxious when….”


“If…, then….” Admittedly, you may want to use some leverage to persuade your teammate or client to follow your direction. This system of persuasion, however, creates distance between you and the other person. It suggests that you have power that the other person lacks. In an effort to build a partnership with your client or teammate, you will want to find ways to persuade that don’t invite resistance or opposition. Describing what you know about the impact of certain behavior is more likely to be accepted than resisted.

Scrap the Negative, Accentuate the Positive

To get the dopamine flowing in your clients and coworkers, consider substituting negative strategies with positive messages that will encourage them to want to listen and continue the conversation. In the end, morale and productivity will improve.

Dr. Shadle earned her PhD in interpersonal and organizational communication from the State University of New York at Buffalo. Dr. Meyer earned his PhD from the University of Minnesota in communication studies and speech arts. They write and train through Interpersonal Communication Services, Inc. They have trained veterinary professionals at numerous national and international conferences.

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