Start with heart: Sounds nice, but what does it mean?


I visited a wonderful human medicine practice that inspires me, and came across the poster that inspires them. Their personable skills are easier to come by than you think.

Photo: Shutterstock.comWhile the human-animal bond is something much revered in the veterinary world, the bond between a veterinarian and a pet owner is just as important. And in order to make that bond strongest, I have always believed that the two most important moments in a doctor-client relationship are the initial meeting and introduction, and when we're given an opportunity to help and support that person.

I was recently at the Cleveland Clinic, a major human medical facility headquartered in Ohio with a location in Weston, Florida. Despite the fact that my interactions with staff were often brief and I would meet multiple caregivers in a single day, I was impressed with the people skills of the doctors and nurses. Personal interaction with patients was a focus-and it showed.

My experience at this hospital set me to wondering: In an increasingly uncivil society, how are people skills engendered? How are they internalized so that they become second nature? After all, not everyone is inviting and compassionate by nature. Can these attributes be developed? Are they skills that can be learned? What kind of effort is required to cultivate them?

Naturally, this got me thinking about the veterinary profession. Anyone who works with people as consumers, including animal caregivers, knows there are frequent times when emotions can get the best of our customers-and of us. The result is often a loss of any real communication, as both sides tend to focus on their own perspective. How can we soothe the savage beast of emotion and prevent flare-ups of anger and fear?

Constant reminders

While walking through the Cleveland Clinic to an appointment, my eye was drawn to a large poster that stood out from the rest. It was titled “Heart” and outlined a few simple steps that help build trust and support in interpersonal relationships. Some are obvious strategies we all know-others not so much. As the poster extolls people every time they read it, “Start with heart.” But how do you do that?

I've adapted the following steps from this program:

When meeting someone new:

> Introduce yourself by name and with a smile.

> Engage people with active listening.

> Let them know you are glad to meet them.

> Build rapport.

Rapport is especially important, since a relationship with your veterinary clients should be built on solid connections. So how exactly do you build rapport-both in that first meeting and over time? Here are some suggestions:

> Be genuine, warm and friendly.

> Show interest in them.

> Compliment them or-better yet-the pet.

> Don't overdo or appear needy.

> Learn to read people. For example, it's important to know when you should say “feces,” when you should say “poo-poo” and when you should say “s--t.”

> Be sensitive to issues of age, gender and culture.

Things don't always go well

When another person has a concern or a problem, remember it's not always easy to voice disappointment without frustration and anger. Give them a hand.

> Listen to their story attentively.

> Empathize with them. Don't try to minimize the issue, but try to imagine how they feel.

> If the issue has arisen because of something you or your staff did or didn't do, apologize for their disappointment.

> Address their problem by asking what you can do to help or offer a suggestion of what you can do.

> Thank them for being willing to talk and share their issue and ask if there are other concerns.

After thinking these methods through and applying them to your everyday experiences in the veterinary world, the saying “Start with heart” begins to make much more sense. In fact, if you keep at it enough, it might just become second nature. With a good beginning and a little humility, you're on the path to a long and mutually beneficial relationship. It all starts with heart.

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 is retired from practice and lives in Anguilla, British West Indies. 

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