November 3rd 2023

Effective communication – It Takes Two – Diane Harvey

With Strictly Come Dancing back in our living rooms, the phrase – it takes two to tango – could be applied to our verbal interaction choreography as well. Statistics from a recent survey, provided by Dr Tamzin Furtado from the University of Liverpool, show that 90% of horse owners think their vet’s opinion is important. If we imagine small animal pet owners have a similar opinion, that means that 10% of veterinary clients do not think their vet’s opinion is important.

So whose is? Their own? A Facebook group? Friends at the stables or on dog walks? What does this mean for the pet owner’s motivation to follow the treatment path proposed by the vet? This statistic provides interesting context for some of the disputes that arise between pet owners and their vets. How do we achieve effective communication when one side feels they are the oracle of all knowledge when it comes to the health of the horse/pet? There are a few tools out there which can help us.

William Miller and Stephen Rollnick have developed motivational interview techniques which vets and pet owners can usefully employ to get the most out of their consultations and conversations. Key to this approach is that both participants are considered of equal status in the conversation. To achieve this collegiate balance, the vet needs to acknowledge the horse (pet) owner as the expert and gate keeper of their animal’s day to day health. The horse/pet owner needs to acknowledge the vet is the clinical professional who values the information provided by the pet owner to inform discussions and agreement over diagnostics and treatment paths. Conversations are therefore to be approached as one expert talking to another, working as a team to solve the problem, in an atmosphere of mutual respect. The vet is therefore not the only expert in the room.

An example of this approach in action might be:

An obese dog is brought into the surgery. Rather than the vet telling the client their animal needs to go on a diet, a more effective approach to lead to the desired change to feeding would be to ask the pet owner – What do you think of Bailey’s weight at the moment? The vet is therefore seeking and valuing the opinion of the pet owner to open up the conversation that needs to be had for the future health and welfare of the animal.

In this way, the vet has not told the owner what to do which would be to take on a position of superiority over owner. The vet can arrive at the desired outcome by working through the issue together. The vet resists giving instructions but seeks to understand the barriers the pet owner has to (not giving treats), so that the vet can understand and help to develop and support the change to feeding behaviour for the desired outcome.

The interaction is therefore more of a smooth waltz than an Argentine tango.

Keep dancing!

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