Mastering the Art of Communication – Part 1

George Bernard Shaw once said, “the single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” And he’s right.

Whether you’re talking to a client, an employee, your spouse, your kids, or the Amazon delivery guy, when you initiate communication, you have one goal in mind: imparting information. Any disconnect between your intention and the listener’s perception and you have a communication breakdown on your hands.

While it might be easy to blame the listener for being over-sensitive or having poor listening skills, adjusting your delivery from the outset is sure to be far more productive. Believe me when I say I learned this first-hand while managing 180 employees at a large specialty practice!

Effective communication promotes better patient care and a healthy practice culture

If you’re like most veterinary professionals, you’re no doubt familiar with one of the biggest misconceptions associated with your profession, that being that all veterinarians are in it for the money. The better your communication, the easier you’ll be able to overcome this stigma and instill trust in your clients. The greater that trust, the greater the compliance. The greater the compliance, the better the care. It’s that simple.

As for your staff members, they need to trust that they’re really part of a team, and talking it is one of several ways to walk it. Effective communication is a big driver of culture, and a positive culture boosts morale, deters employees from leaving, and minimizes on-the-job errors. Say no more.

A few tips to help bridge the gap between intention and perception

Tone

Some of us are loud and outspoken by nature. Others, quiet as a mouse. Put your default tone aside and adapt to the situation. Keep in mind that the right tone can leave listeners feeling encouraged, hopeful, supported or understood, while the wrong tone can leave them feeling discouraged, attacked, ashamed or alone.

Pace

Your clients aren’t concerned about the number of patients you need to squeeze in that day. They’re concerned about their animals’ welfare, and they need to know you share that concern. Rushing through consultations – or employee conversations for that matter – suggests you have somewhere better to be, which in turn tells your listeners they’re really not that important and neither is the issue at hand.

Words

Choose them carefully! We all have trigger words that send us spiraling into despair. For me, that word is “disappointment.” When someone says they’re disappointed in me, I shut down completely. Of course, you can’t always know what your listener’s triggers will be. That’s where your emotional intelligence comes into play. As soon as you recognize you’ve triggered someone – watch posture and facial expressions and the signs will be there, I promise – don’t keep powering through. Stop, check in, and try a different approach.

Pauses

As mentioned above, never be afraid to pause. If the person you’re talking to appears agitated, upset, confused or just tuned-out, take a breath and try to re-engage them. Enquire. “Does this make sense?” “Can I elaborate for you?” “Is there anything that isn’t quite clear?”

Body language

Looking your listeners in the eye and adopting a relaxed stance will leave them feeling more at ease and open to what you have to say. In a study conducted by the Humane Society of the United States[1], discussing or disputing fees was cited as the #3 stressor among veterinarians. If your stress is evident during a conversation about money, it will likely rub off on your clients. With the right body language, you can help give them peace of mind that any treatment you’re suggesting is the best thing for the patient, not your practice.

Mirroring

According to a 2005 study[2], mirroring can leave your audience with positive feelings and enable you to communicate more persuasively. Physically, you might mirror their hand gestures, body orientation, tone and pitch. Verbally, you might ask them what they’ve taken away from your conversation, to see if their perception does indeed match your intention.

Like any skill, the more you practice communication, the better you’ll become at it and you’ll start to reap great benefits both within your practice and in the world at large. Unfortunately, there’s no guarantee that misunderstandings won’t arise, but that’s a whole other topic we’ll save for Part 2: The Role of Communication in Conflict Resolution.

For now, I’ll leave you with another quote; this one from the Greek philosopher, Epictetus. Remember, “we have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.”


[1] 2003-2004 mail survey conducted among 200 practices
[2] Balinson & Yee

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