Listening to Animal Owners as a Clinician

Listening to Animal Owners as a Clinician

By Chris Bates, M.Ost (Osteopath and Equine Therapist)

Within a Veterinary practice or any form of professional interaction with animal owners, communication is key in discovering the information you need to make safe and appropriate decisions. 

While many pursue a career in Veterinary Medicine or animal care because they have a love for animals, dealing with humans is a large part of this career track. 

Communication and rapport building with an owner is honed over time. There may also be the odd occasion where missed information can interrupt the course of treatment.  Let’s take a deeper dive into humans and how to really hear owners. 

In my time working as an Osteopath (for Humans), I’ve had to talk with people about extremely sensitive subjects and difficult situations. In fact, in the UK, as registered Osteopaths we are required to complete a certain number of hours of training in communication and consent; every cycle of continued professional development. 

I have found that the more I learn about how people communicate, the more questions I have; people are extremely complex creatures and this is made even more confusing when emotional turmoil is factored into the equation. 

Emotions running wild

We all love our pets. They are part of the family and when owners attend the clinic or we visit them, they can be frightened and anxious about what will happen to their beloved companion. It’s hardly surprising that people in this heightened state of arousal and stress might omit some aspect(s) of vital information to the animal’s case. 

There is also the added impact of “white coat syndrome”, this is when people become fearful or at least apprehensive of a veterinary/medical professional. Of course, the owner will empathize deeply with their animal, so even though they themselves are not being treated, they could be so profoundly connected with the pet that they begin to act as if they were on the examination table. 

So what can we do to attempt to lessen the likelihood that overwhelming emotions will impact good animal care? 

This is where honesty and clarity need to combine with empathy and compassion. 

  • Reassure – If you suspect that an owner is firmly in fight/flight mode and the fear and concern for their animal is clouding their communication, we need to make sure they understand that we are there to help. Perhaps start by stating that the priority is the animal’s health and welfare and that they can rest assured that you will leave no stone unturned to find the best treatment. 
  • Suggest company – Some owners might benefit from having a friend or family member with them when you make your consultation. Having someone who knows them and cares about them, but who is one level removed from the situation might give some clarity to the owner. The company may hear what you say as the clinician more clearly and be able to relay information in a comforting and familiar way. 
  • Ensure understanding – Clarity in your description of findings and seeking a way to explain complex details more simply can be transformative for owners. Many people who own animals find too much science babble very worrying and confusing. If we can learn to break down findings and ideas into simple thoughts, we can ameliorate much of that concern. I find that using metaphor is a very useful technique for this. 

Looking beyond the words

Have you ever listened to someone and thought they weren’t telling you the whole story? You would not be alone… 

A very high proportion of our communication is actually non-verbal. Well-trained practitioners who study human communication can easily tell if a person is lying from their body language. 

It’s actually impossible for most people to stop this “non-verbal leakage”, however people with psychopathic and sociopathic tendencies have been noted as being better at covering this. 

Quite often a good give away is when people are noticeably fidgeting or fiddling with clothing or hair. This can be a sign that they are uncomfortable and potentially not mentioning details or altering them somehow. 

People can often feel guilty if their animal is in pain or ill during their watch. The aversion to being judged by the vet or practitioner might mean they don’t give you the whole truth. There are plenty of signs of this such as lack of eye contact, shifting weight, touching the face and the aforementioned fidgeting. 

So how can we offer the owner the chance to give us all the details we need? Of course, it is important that we are as informed as possible to make appropriate diagnosis and planning. I have found telling people phrases like “there is no judgment here” or “you can say anything here” can be very effective at opening more honest dialogue. 

Trying to make eye contact with owners when questioning but maintaining a non-threatening posture by not squaring off can draw more information. This is because the person knows they are being seen and observed. A simple method to appear more sympathetic and calming is to tilt your head when listening and nod from time to time to show understanding. 

If you observe some non-verbal cues that there is more to discover, there can be a lot to be gained by simply explaining why you need to know as much as possible. If we explain to people that the best care and solutions for their problems comes from absolute clarity and comprehensive understanding then we can often convince them to divulge further. 

Owners obviously want the best for their pet otherwise they wouldn’t be there. So, by being candid and convincing the owner that you need every detail they can remember they might put their own anxieties aside. 

Active listening

When the client is talking, it can be of huge help to “actively listen” to draw their explanations. This can be very simple and you may already do it without noticing. As mentioned above, nodding and eye contact show you are engaged with the person; non-verbal communication works both ways. Verbal “catalysts” are just as useful. 

I find affirming sounds such as “…uh hu…” and “…mm mm…” show you are taking on board what is being said. If you wish to draw more and steer the conversation, you can prompt with “…and then…”, “tell me more about that” or similar probing statements. One can even use hand gestures such as casually putting your hand out palm up which indicates you understand but want more information especially when combined with a slow nod. 

In conclusion, we can see that working with animals can be just as much about working with people. We observe everyday different people communicating in different ways but can easily miss vital information. 

Training ourselves to sympathetically engage with people via techniques to put them at ease and then active listening can yield far better results than relying only on your observations of the physical presentation in front of you. 

A great way to practice is to go and socialize with a friend and ask them about themselves, really listen and see how much you can engage the conversation from their side and what information you can draw. 

For more information on how you can become a qualified Animal Osteopath, click here

Blog Post written by:
Chris Bates
Osteopath (DO), Equine Therapist and Lecturer at London College of Animal Osteopathy