They say it’s true for all doctors. After we start practicing medicine, we lose sight of the view from the other side of the exam room table. Whether we’ve been practicing 20 years or two weeks, docs have a way of forgetting what it feels like to need the help of a medical professional. This, too often, lays the groundwork for us-and-them-style thinking.
It’s only natural, human nature being what it is. Even so, this breed of amnesia is problematic, especially because it often leads to adversarial work environments, compromised client relationships, questionable compliance and poor outcomes. In other words, it usually begets more of the same.
If you’re anything like me, adverse client interactions manifest mostly in your head. These thoughts unspool as a series of intrusive thoughts, including gems like these:
- Are they seriously questioning my skills after I’ve just saved their pet and given them a huge discount?
- Is this guy pigheadedly unwilling to comply or just brainlessly incapable?
- I bet she gets home and disputes this charge on her American Express.
Yes, of course I know these thoughts are usually baseless and always inappropriate (which is why I only think them), but they’re typical of the first place my brain goes when faced with any real or perceived attempt by my clients to question my personal or professional beliefs. (How dare they?)
Hence, why I’ve gotten way better at doubting my own judgments and jamming on the filter before they make a verbal run for the exit.
But is my self-censorship enough? Probably not. Here’s how one mentor showed me how to improve my client empathy chops.
1. Shut up!
But muzzling myself is only the first step. After all, I’m still liable to experience all those stressful emotions if I don’t change the way I think. And that’s every bit as hard as you might expect it is.
Plus, when you shut up listening is easier, too.
2. Act better than you feel.
Experience has taught me that if I practice acting differently, my thinking tends to follow. It’s kind of like that popular study about smiling, which found that the very act of dimpling up measurably improves our disposition. This only goes to show you that doing things over and over again has a way of improving how well you do it, whether it’s voluntary or not.
So it goes with how we behave with our clients. If we smile, shake hands, make nice and generally act like we care about their feelings, our thinking has a way of catching up, which, apparently, is only human too.
3. Practice compassion.
Step into their shoes. See things from their side. My mentor actually has me sit in the exam room chairs regularly. She recommends I sit in the waiting room at least a couple of times a week. She made me film a video of myself (not pleasant). Compassion isn’t like empathy, where you literally feel what they feel (too stressful!), but it puts you closely in touch with their point of view, nonetheless.
Note: “Compassion” may sound corny, but the value of this practice is detailed extensively in the seminal negotiation book, Getting To Yes, because if you understand what they really want, you’re much likelier to reach a solution that benefits both parties beyond either’s expectations.
4 Follow the Golden Rule.
It’s not enough to shoe-swap; you have to take the next step and treat others like you’d want to be treated.
5 Remember to be grateful.
Their patronage is the only thing that keeps you in business, right? At least once a day, remind yourself of that. Put up a plaque in your office, enter an alert on your phone or stick a post-it on your computer screen if you have to, but do it.
Why it Matters
It’s all well and good, you say, but these are just New Age platitudes. Here is why it matters:
1. Workplace atmosphere
Any adversarial or self-serving way of thinking has a way of trickling down. It affects our teams, thereby coloring the culture of our practices, affecting our communal job satisfaction and influencing our clients’ perceptions of our practices and our profession.
2. Animal advocacy
Seeing things from our clients’ POV at a micro level also informs how we see larger issues, too.
Concentrating on being advocates for animal health automatically puts us on the side of the angels. It changes not just our hospital and client dynamic, it furthers our profession’s larger goals, too—not to mention the global concerns we’ve pledged to serve in our oath.
After all, if we’re busy being staunchly oppositional with respect to undesirable client outlooks, consumer-friendly legislation (aka “veterinary-unfriendly laws”) and animal-welfare practices, for example, we’re unlikely to be busy enough being helpful to animals.
We talk a big game about mental health in this profession, but we’ve as yet established few systemic approaches to address these. A re-boot of our hospital’s mindset toward greater positivity may not be systemic yet, but now that the Fear Free practice is taking off, can the Stress Free practice be far behind?
Note: I hate the term burnout because it puts the onus on those of us who experience severe workplace stress, as if we’re a weak link that can’t handle the work. Unfortunately, it’s still our common tongue.
4. Clinical success
Listening and acting better, practicing compassion and gratitude … it’s not hard to connect the dots. It all leads to greater compliance, improved patient care and better clinical outcomes.
5. Professional success
I tend to think that professional success is best measured by animal health, but let’s be honest, making a great living financially still figures highly. Higher personal drive, improved mental health, enhanced staff morale, a positive workplace, happier clients and more effective marketing (compassion has many benefits) … that’s successful, too.
If these are the spoils of thinking more like our clients, why don’t we do it more often? Sadly, negativity is sometimes more seductive. Thankfully, it’s never too late to make a change.
Dr. Patty Khuly owns a small animal practice in Miami and is a passionate blogger at www.drpattykhuly.com. Columnists’ opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Veterinary Practice News.
Originally published in the March 2017 issue of Veterinary Practice News. Did you enjoy this article? Then subscribe today!