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Communicating successfully
  1. Zara Boland

Abstract

Communication is the art of interaction and information exchange. Zara Boland discusses why some skills are more important than others

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COMMUNICATION can be as uncomplicated as a shoulder shrug or as complex as computer code. It includes verbal, non-verbal and electronic means of expression and utilises a myriad of different methods. Telephone, e-mail, body language, radio, art, TV, facial expressions, blogs, speaking and hand signals are all forms of communication. However, regardless of what channel of communication is used, there is always a basic formula. There needs to be an information sender, a message to convey, an information recipient and a shared understanding of language.

There are also a number of key communication skills and these include speaking, listening, questioning, analysing, observing, processing and evaluating. Have you thought about how well you perform in each of these areas?

Zara Boland is the founder and director of Vet Voice and a BVA board member

Veterinary communication

Veterinary communication is an area that can raise a polite, but fairly blank facial expression, accompanied by a general air of confusion and at least one curious question. Or, at least, that's my experience.

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What does veterinary communication mean? Quite simply, it is a specialised area of communication focused on the veterinary profession to help support all veterinary personnel as well as their clients. As a vet, I feel uniquely positioned and privileged to understand not only how vets work, but also how they need to communicate. Our duty of care extends to all existing and potential animal owners, which means that our communication needs to reach beyond the clinic and into the wider community. Fundamentally, we need to communicate effectively and successfully to promote responsible pet ownership as well as promoting animal welfare, health, nutrition, disease control and related issues.

In a traditional veterinary clinic setting, if a client leaves the consultation room and has to ask for clarification or additional explanation from another team member then, for me, I've failed in my duty of care. To take it one step further, if any client feels the need to understand what they've been told using Google, then I've not only failed, but I've reached rock-bottom! Don't get me wrong, as a keen Internet user I fully endorse and promote the value of peer recommendation, but I'd like to think that my client views it more as a reassurance to validate what they've been told, rather than going straight to Wikipedia for an explanation.

One size doesn't fit all…

When it comes to effective communication, it is crucial to appropriately identify the target audience. This will impact not only on the method of communication used, but also on the skills needed. However, the target audience will inevitably change depending on the key message being conveyed and the aim of the outcome. For example, telling clients about the importance of tick prevention (and perhaps increasing uptake of preventative treatments), might be targeted at dog owners and could be tied in with an educational campaign during the appropriate season, employing a variety of different channels to get the message across, such as postcards, e-newsletters, waiting room posters, a column in the local paper, Facebook and product promotion.

At the core of successful communication is the ability to get your main take-home message across. There are numerous ways to do this, but approaching it in a structured way is key. One of the simplest ways to do this is by constructing a message house, such as the one shown in the box on the right, which is based on a template available at www.messagehouse.org. This allows you to define your key message and successfully deliver it, even in the face of negative or difficult situations. It's a common media training skill, but it's also useful in a practical veterinary situation, especially to ensure that a consistent message is given. In basic terms, it means identifying your key clinical messages and then pre-packaging them for practical use.

How to build a message house

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The main take-home message needs to be supported by three solid additional messages, and all of this is built on a foundation of evidence, facts and proof to substantiate the main key message.

For example, if a practice wanted to use a message house to promote the importance of flea treatment, the main take-home message (ie, the roof) could be: ‘Flea prevention is the best way to ensure your dog and your home stay healthy, hygienic and flea-free’.

The three supporting additional messages would be:

▪ Fleas carry disease, which they can transmit to your dog.

▪ Fleas can cause mild, moderate or severe skin problems.

▪ Adult fleas live in your dog's hair, but their eggs live in your environment.

The underlying foundation of proof points to substantiate the key message and supporting messages would then be:

▪ Fleas can lead to tapeworm infection and anaemia.

▪ Intense itching and scratching can result in hair loss and some dogs may have an allergy to flea saliva (flea allergic dermatitis).

▪ The flea lifecycle means that one female flea lays up to 50 eggs per day. These hatch into larvae and pupate in the environment. In as little as 21 days, one flea can multiply to 1000 fleas.

▪ With a flea infestation, 5 per cent of the problem is on your dog, 95 per cent of the problem is in your dog's environment.

Getting the message across

Focusing on the areas outlined below could help to get you thinking about how you are communicating what your clinic and your skills can do for your clients. Go through them with everyone on the team and ask your clients to give you feedback too. It will be an enlightening experience and one where you can also reap the rewards of the intangible, but increasingly powerful, word of mouth recommendation.

▪ Visual messaging

How does your practice look from the outside and from the inside? What visual messages are you sending and how can you tailor them?

▪ Auditory messaging

What does your client hear while they're waiting to see you or to pay their bill, or simply while they're on the other end of the phone?

▪ Olfactory messaging

How does your practice smell? What does it say about your standards of hygiene?

▪ Language

Do you speak in a language that your client understands? Can you adapt your language to suit different information recipients?

▪ Tone of voice

How do you come across when you're speaking to clients and to colleagues?

▪ Emotion

Is it OK to express emotion? What type of emotion is acceptable and what type is not?

▪ Body language

Is everyone in the clinic aware of how they communicate non-verbally and of the impact this has?

▪ Intrapersonal skills

Does everyone in the clinic know their own intrapersonal skills and how these can be used to best effect with clients, as well as within the practice team?

▪ Interpersonal skills

Does everyone recognise their interpersonal skills and how can these be managed to optimise your practice communication?

▪ Telephone skills

How does your receptionist answer the phone? Do you have voice mail or is there a holding message your client hears? What does it say about your practice, your services, your people and your skills?

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