Conversations with pet owners aren’t always easy so vets would do well to prioritise so-called soft skills to improve their interpersonal relationships. By Sue Nelson
It’s pretty simple really—vets go into practice to help animals. “They fit the profile as compassionate and highly intelligent people with perfectionistic tendencies,” says Dr Nadine Hamilton, a psychologist who specialises in veterinarian mental health and wellbeing. “But there is a big part of the job description many vet students and new vets haven’t considered—dealing with human clients, building relationships with them and, very often, breaking difficult news.”
Vets require soft skills—diplomacy, empathy, emotional intelligence and a great bedside manner—not just to deal with the animal patient, but also the human companion in the room, who might be asking strange questions, misreading their pet’s behaviour, or misinterpreting the advice and instructions you give them.
Despite this, it’s not something that is taught at vet school. “I can’t remember any lectures based on dealing with clients,” says Dr Kim Hooper, who runs the mobile practice Paws at Yours, in Melbourne. “Most of it is picked up when you do your clinical rounds—observing how other vets do things.”
“By definition being a vet branches into so many different fields that we just weren’t trained for,” says Dr Hooper. “There are times when you just have to hope that you have the right personality to cope with the situation.
“I’ve definitely had encounters with people who will choose you as a vet not necessarily because you’re the best vet, but because they feel they can have an open and honest discussion with you.”
Pet owners can over identify with their animals and diagnose conditions or detect symptoms that just aren’t there. Worse, some clients project their own issues onto the pet. Indeed, many vets will have broached the awkward topic of patient obesity with the patient’s obese owner.
“Sometimes what’s going on is very much tied up with what’s going on with the owners,” Dr Hooper says. “I’ve definitely met some pets whose owners think they have more problems than they do. You meet all sorts of interesting people.”
There is also huge scope for misunderstanding: “You get people who come in and say things like ‘my dog is limping but he’s not in any pain’,” says Dr Hooper. “So you’ve got to work on getting them to understand what is going on and explaining that if the dog wasn’t in pain he wouldn’t be limping.”
The most commonly cited soft-skills challenge for vets is having a conversation about euthanasia. More than other health professionals, vets regularly make these life or death decisions for their patients. But they shouldn’t have to wear those decisions. A vet can educate and inform but ultimately it’s a decision for the owner.
“People may want the vet to make that decision because they feel guilty,” Dr Hamilton says. “The vet has to take that on, and then perform the euthanasia. It’s a huge emotional rollercoaster.”
“I find this can be quite a long discussion and of course people are emotionally distressed and asking you all sorts of questions about how it’s going to happen and what will happen afterwards—and then they ask you how they are going to explain death to their children,” adds Dr Hooper. “And you get into this area where you’re not entirely qualified or ready to get into these issues with them.”
But while you might get used to the difficult conversations about illness and death, it is often the ignorance or silly questions that are harder to navigate. “It can be difficult trying to keep a straight face when you’re trying to deal with them,” says Dr Hooper. “You can’t make assumptions. If you give them eardrops for their animals, then you have to tell them that they go in the animal’s ear—you can’t assume the client will know what to do with them.”
Smooth communication depends on not making assumptions and having good listening skills, according to Dr Hamilton. “We all listen to respond, not to understand, she advises. “We may anticipate the response but not always listen to it.”
Of course, some people are just rude.
One area where communication can sometimes break down is when it’s time to pay the bill. Some clients become aggressive towards vets because of fee structures, and the perception that they’re being ripped off, where other health professionals may be shielded from this by Medicare. The presumption that vets are extremely well paid persists, regardless of the reality.
“When I worked in a larger practice it would happen all the time,” Dr Hooper laments. “People would come in and they wouldn’t want to pay their bill even though they’d consented to treatment. They would say that if we loved animals we would do it for free. Nobody says that to other service providers.”
“There are so many misconceptions—vets take a lot on and they don’t get the recognition or respect they deserve,” notes Dr Hamilton. “Then there is the emotional blackmail that may happen, where a client uses a pet as a bargaining chip. If a vet isn’t used to conflict, they might find that they give in to that. They won’t stand up for themselves.”
This is where boundaries come into play. Vets need to set strong limits on the sort of behaviour they will accept—and a little bit of emotional intelligence goes a long way. Can this be learned over time? It depends. Dr Hooper thinks that just as some GPs have a poor bedside manner, so too do some vets.
But you can always get better at it. “Emotional intelligence or EQ is about being aware of your own emotions and able to recognise them in other people,” says Dr Hamilton. “Some vets have had the walls up for so long that it’s affected the way they deal with people. They may have switched off as a self-protective measure in the job.”
Dr Hamilton adds that it’s important to value your own self-care in order to be able to understand others’ needs and set boundaries and limits. Self-regulation means knowing when enough is enough, taking a break and understanding your pain points.
It can also help to learn some assertiveness skills. “This means learning ways of communicating that take the accusation out of a statement,” she says. “Accusation gets people defensive and they feel the need to retaliate and retain the upper hand. It’s important to be respectful to yourself and the other person.”