Communication with Clients--Seeking First to Understand, Then To Be Understood
World Small Animal Veterinary Association World Congress Proceedings, 2003
Chareles J. Wayner, DVM
Director, Global Veterinary Practice Health, Hill's Pet Nutrition, Inc.
Topeka, KS, USA

Being a productive veterinary health care team member and advocate for the pet's best interest, relies on your ability to communicate effectively. Communication is the "link" between your education, and being able to apply those skills, talents and abilities related to proper pet care. In this paper, "communication" will be viewed from a US perspective, realizing that all of this information may not apply or be appropriate for certain cultures.

Information Education COMMUNICATION Application Appreciation

"Information" can be obtained in mediums such as data, ads, references, comments, perspectives, words, pictures, movies, video... All of us filter though the information we are constantly exposed to, and retain (for a variety of different reasons), selective amounts, which we term "knowledge," the process being "education." To benefit others though, we must translate/transfer this knowledge effectively. This critical step is "communication." The successful outcome of effective communication results in "application"--the client's utilization of your practice's products and services. Without consistent, effective communication, all of the information you convert into education does not manifest itself in positive outcomes. Thus, instead of "appreciation," (by pet owners, other health care team members, pets, even yourself), you often become mired in "frustration." While communication must be taken seriously and conducted responsibly, it should also be approached as an enjoyable opportunity to help the pets and people you serve. It doesn't matter how much education you have (how "smart" you are), IF you're unable to effectively COMMUNICATE, the pet owner can't make an informed decision.

WHAT is Communication?

You can't promote and encourage people to use veterinary products and services if you can't communicate effectively. It is also quite probable then, that ineffective communication can deter people from using veterinary products and services! As an advocate for the pet's best interest, you have an obligation to communicate well. A main definition of client is "dependent." Clients ARE dependent on you for proper pet care. Communicate = "To Connect," "To establish rapport." Communication = "The successful transfer, (send receive understand) of intended meaning."

Communicating is NOT just "sending" information, (verbal, non-verbal, written...). Communication also involves a critical element that is often overlooked--knowing the recipient receives AND understands the intent. Effective communication is the responsibility of all parties involved and should ideally integrate the skill sets of all veterinary health care team members. This should be done in such a way as to instill confidence, trust, compliance and practice-bonding (loyalty) in the pet owner. Remember too, the importance of such elements as practice philosophy and ambiance, (externally and internally at the practice)...

WHO is Involved in Communication?

The late Jim Brockmeier, DVM, a talented communicator, presented lectures on the confusion generated from something as seemingly simple as a two- person conversation. Dr. Brockmeier stated that there are (at least) six entities involved in every conversation (first person): Who I truly am, Who you truly are, Who I portray I am, Who you portray you are, Who I think you think I am, Who you think I think you are. How confusing! It is no wonder that many of the problems related to client and team interactions involve "mis-conversation," (often inaccurately referred to as mis-communication):"I said..." "I heard..." "I didn't say that" "But you did say it" "No I didn't" "Yes you did" "That's not what I meant" "But that's what you said" "No I didn't" "Yes you did" "I didn't mean that" "But that's what I heard"...

Conversations involve "spoken" words, not necessarily "intended" words. It has been said that in most conversations, one is either speaking, or preparing to speak. That is to say, while one person is speaking, the other person is not necessarily listening, but rather, "preparing a reply." Realizing the confusion that can result from casual conversation, effective communication, (which can be extended to written instructions, talking on the phone, e mail correspondence...), needs to be incorporated into the "client interaction acumen," if the health care team wants to achieve high productivity. Conversations may involve six entities. Communication may also involve many entities. The difference between the two however, is that with communication, there is a focus and consistency, which helps to minimize the chance for misunderstandings. As an advocate for the pet's best interest, you have an obligation to communicate well.

WHY Communicate?

To ensure views, thoughts, knowledge, meanings, concerns... are received and understood by all involved.

Depending on the intention, communications can have a number of purposes, such as to: Inform, Persuade, Influence, Translate, Negotiate, Share, Defend, Console, Promote, Educate, Assist, Gain information, Build trust/credibility, Direct, Enhance efficiency, Enhance effectiveness, Advocate, Listen...Remember, however, that people do things, (take action) based on THEIR reasons, not yours! In order to be an advocate for the pet's best interest, especially related to proper pet nutrition, you should not make assumptions about any pet owner. A paramount edict in medicine is: "Diagnose before prescribing." Said another way, as stated by Stephen

R. Covey in his best selling book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, (Habit number 5): "Seek first to understand, then to be understood." Said in an even more concise way: "Listen, with the intent to understand." Simply stated: listen! Please note: "Simple" should not imply "easy." You should continually practice and refine listening skills.


Everyone with a properly functioning auditory system is capable of "hearing, " (perceiving sound). "Listening," on the other hand, is the ability to hear something--"with thoughtful intention." In Dr. Covey's book mentioned above, he points out four levels of listening: Ignoring Listening is actively deciding not to be attentive.

Pretending Listening is actively deciding not to be attentive, but acting as if you are.

Selective Listening is tuning in for key words or phrases that are of interest to you, in order to respond.

Empathic Listening is appreciating the other person's frame of reference. It is not necessarily agreeing with their position, but it is acknowledging that they do have an opinion. In doing so, the other person is affirmed, validated and appreciated for his or her views. Only then, can you be of service and value in recommending advice or solutions to the other person's needs and/or wants. While there are components to responsible pet ownership, (proper pet nutrition being one) understanding specific situations will allow you to provide the best guidance for each pet and pet owner.

"People don't care how much you know, until they know how much you care."

One of the most poignant demonstrations of "caring" is to listen empathically.

Even though the veterinary practice can oftentimes be an extremely hectic environment, the health care team's ability to "listen" to each client, and then communicate accordingly, can make the difference between mediocre medicine and great medicine, average service and substantial productivity!

HOW Do We Communicate?

When most people think of face-to-face communication, it is usually in this order: 1. Words, 2. Inflections, 3. Body language/gestures. Curiously though, when percentages have been assigned to these three areas in a variety of studies, in regard to their contribution to communication, the following order is consistently obtained: 1.Body language/gestures, 2. Inflections, 3. Words.

Stated differently, spoken words have less of an impact on effective communication than the inflections used in saying the words, and body language and gestures have more of an impact than the other two! Veterinary health care team members need to relate specific information to pet owners, as established by the practice owners and management. Topics such as: Neutering, Behavior, Parasite control, Vaccination protocols, Oral care, Test results, Wellness nutrition, Therapeutic nutrition... Oftentimes, the attempt to accomplish all of these things is through verbal communication with the spoken word.

This information must be accurate and relevant to the pet owner. It makes little sense to discuss puppy socialization to a client with a 6 year old dog, or bloodwork results to a client whose pet had only radiographs taken. HOWEVER, pets usually eat everyday, so proper pet nutrition discussions are almost always relevant! Given that the information we are trying to convey is applicable, HOW we convey the essence of the information is paramount to effective communication--that of allowing the pet owner to make an informed decision based on value, (benefits/price), and our competence and sincerity.

Body Language

Much of what we intentionally or unintentionally intend to "transmit" to another is via our body language. It is therefore important to know some of the positive and negative conveyances related to focusing on the pet owner and the pet. Some types of body language perceived negatively include: Arms folded, Avoiding eye contact, Looking "off in the distance," Tapping a foot, drumming fingers, Poor posture, Leaning back against something, Writing while the pet owner is speaking, Frowning, Yawning, Looking at your watch, Lack of (if appropriate), physical contact with the pet.

Conversely, some forms of body language perceived positively include: Smiling, Empathic listening, Leaning forward slightly, yet respecting the other person's "space." Arms not folded, Occasional eye contact, Correct posture, Physical contact (if and when appropriate) with the pet.


Another way clients can detect interest and sincerity, and the lack thereof, is by one's inflections (tone of voice). Reading, "Fluffy looks real good," for most of us, appears as a cheerful phrase, but if said in a monotone or flippantly... might be construed at negative, even sarcastic. Remember, as a veterinary health care team member, you are in the "service" business. Pet owners want your attention and in return, they are much more likely to listen to your suggestions.

Even though it may be difficult to be upbeat at times, pet owners expect veterinary health care team members to be pleasant and courteous. A powerful way to be a spokesperson for the pet's best interest, is to not only be competent and confident, but to also use a vibrant tone of voice. Along with this approach, be cognizant of other important ways you convey a caring attitude. Proper grooming/personal hygiene, appropriate dress, fresh breath, addressing the pet by the correct name and gender...are all perceived positively by the pet owner.


Communication is an intricate process of listening, then helping to find solutions to the pet owner's needs or concerns. As a spokesperson for the pet's best interest, the better you communicate, the more effective you will be in not only promoting the benefits of proper veterinary care, but also in having the delighted pet owner accept your recommendations. Thus the pet owner will visit your practice more often, creating more opportunities for interaction. Maximize these visits!

Speaker Information
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Chareles J. Wayner, DVM
Director, Global Veterinary Practice Health
Hill’s Pet Nutrition, Inc.
Topeka, KS, USA