6 Common Nonverbal Communication Errors to Avoid in Veterinary Practice

Nonverbal communication can play a significant role in client relationships and patient outcomes, as demonstrated in part one of our series on nonverbal communication. Here, in part two, we continue the conversation by flagging six common communication mistakes that you or your veterinary team may be making during pet owner interactions and offering tips to ensure you're sending all the right messages.

1. Busy Signals: Disconnectedness Is Damaging

Busy may be the new normal, but if you can't pull your eyes from a smartphone, tablet, or chart to make direct eye contact, your client may feel unappreciated and unwelcome. As such, they'll be less likely to share pertinent information about their pet. Poor eye contact can also subtly suggest deceit, and raise suspicion about your abilities and trustworthiness.

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Direct eye contact, on the other hand, conveys confidence, friendliness, and attentiveness. Just be sure to include periodic breaks to avoid staring. When looking away, focus on the pet or the chart, but meet the client's gaze frequently to show you're still present and engaged. Doing so can also help gauge their understanding or encourage more conversation.

2. Fast and Frantic: Don't Leave Your Client in the Dust

No matter how busy you are, hurried movements and speech only make matters worse. Rushing through your greetings, paperwork, or history-taking can make the clients feel like an inconvenience. Plus, pet owners aren't interested in your overdue charts or lengthy to-do list; they care about their own situation and how they're being treated.

Be intentional with your movements and aim for thoughtful, relaxed, and measured gestures, speech, and breathing. This will help you appear capable and in control, which, in turn, calms your client and encourages them to better receive and understand your recommendations. It might also be a good idea to consider communication tips for when there's no time to waste, which may reduce the causes behind any franticness.

3. Sleepy, Wrinkly, and Confused: Fatigue Isn't Endearing

Veterinary professionals are busier than ever, but presenting clients with low energy and a disheveled appearance sends signals of carelessness, unprofessionalism, and poor time management. Try to communicate an image of health and well-being, which starts with self-care.

You may be unable to escape long shifts and late nights, but spending a few moments on a fresh appearance (e.g., replacing worn or stained scrubs, removing wrinkles) and maintaining an attentive posture can send a better message.

4. Perpetual Motion: Fidgeting Affects Your Authority

This category includes pen-clickers, table tappers, and knee-jostlers. Repetitive motion is highly distracting and conveys nervousness, impatience, and uncertainty.

Keep your body still. Anxiety is contagious and can transfer to the client and the pet. If you must do something with your hands, you can pet receptive patients in long methodical strokes or squeeze a stress ball in your pocket.

5: Tension Is for Knots: Set a Relaxed Example

If you carry tension in your shoulders or keep your limbs close to your body (e.g., arms or legs crossed), you may appear closed off and inaccessible. Clients are less likely to elaborate during their pet's history, feel comfortable asking questions, or prolong the visit in any way. An overly upright or tense posture can suggest that external input (i.e., your client's opinion) isn't welcome.

Change something about your usual position to break free from habitual tension. Easy ideas include:

  • Sit back in your chair with your arms on the armrests.

  • Keep your feet flat on the floor.

  • Get on the floor with a pet.

  • Use a dry erase board to communicate ideas.

Communicating open and relaxed nonverbal signals can unconsciously help your client do the same.

6. One-Sided Conversation: Read Your Client to Gauge Next Steps

Closely monitor your client for their nonverbal feedback. This can help you assess their understanding and receptivity to what you've said, as well as next steps. A few ways to do this include repeating what you've heard them say (i.e., active listening), asking what questions they have, or sitting in respectful silence.

Clients who look around; lean away; become unnaturally still; or hug themselves, their pet, or a carrier are indicating difficulty with the perceived message. If you receive an unexpected reaction, consider what your nonverbal communication might be telling them and whether it's in agreement with what you're saying.

If you truly want to improve your client communication skills, ask a colleague to give you honest feedback on your body language and focus on changing the negative messages you may be sending. Many people are unaware of the nonverbal cues they project, so you're far from alone. Along with other veterinary client communications tips, it may make all the difference with your team, clients, and health outcomes.

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Sarah Rumple
Owner, Chief Creative Officer of Rumpus Writing and Editing

Sarah Rumple is an award-winning veterinary writer and editor. Since 2011, her work has focused on pet health/behavior and veterinary practice management topics. Her clients include individual veterinary practice owners, national corporations, nonprofit associations, media companies, consultants, and others. Learn more at sarahrumple.com.

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