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The Role of Body Language in Practice Life

The Role of Body Language in Practice Life

Body language is a significant player when it comes to communication, as only a relatively small part of communication occurs verbally. From how we hold our hands, where we plant our feet, to how we move our eyes or fiddle with our hair, these gestures are all part of the communication story.

Non-verbal communication

The Oxford Dictionary definition of body language is:
“The conscious and unconscious movements and postures by which attitudes and feelings are communicated”

With so much of our communication being nonverbal, the more conscious we are of the messages we’re sending out, the better!

Working in a veterinary Practice exposes surgeons and nurses to a range of situations that require solid communication skills. On any given day, you’ll be required to appear confident, assertive, empathetic, sympathetic, firm and amiable, to deal with clients who may be upset, angry, confused, relieved, happy or frustrated. For many pet owners, a trip to the vets is a worrying time, and the ability of the staff to cope with the myriad of emotional situations is essential, yet it’s a skill that is seldom taught.

So, how can you ensure your body language is helping you manage this emotional rollercoaster day?

When communicating with a pet owner, try stepping out from behind the examination table, as the table itself presents a tangible barrier between you. When relaying a diagnosis, bad news or discussing a course of treatment, standing to the side of the table to allow free space between yourself and the customer can help engender trust.

  • Take care to present yourself in the right way by addressing your posture. Stand firmly on both feet with your shoulders squarely positioned to underline your confidence. Think of it as the ‘superhero pose’ but avoid placing your hands on your hips as this can come across as aggressive or confrontational. Slouching against the desk or hunching your shoulders gives the impression of being tired and overworked, neither of which is likely to inspire confidence or help you build a rapport with your customer.
  • The direction your torso points is indicative of your intentions. If your chest is facing the pet owner, they will have greater confidence you’re focused on them and actively listening. If your chest is pointing towards the door, subconsciously, the pet owner is likely to recognise that you have somewhere else to be and, therefore, they do not have your full attention.
  • Avoid crossing your arms or legs as this has the effect of making you look defensive and instantly adds doubt to the message you’re attempting to relay. When delivering sad news or discussing sensitive issues, the temptation may be to fold your arms, however, resisting that temptation is advised. You may well be sorry or uncomfortable about the information you’re conveying but crossing your arms clearly displays that sentiment to the pet owner. Such a pose is likely to prepare them for bad news and in so doing, evoke a stronger negative reaction.
  • Do make eye contact – this doesn’t mean staring a customer down, but frequent eye contact maintained for a few seconds at a time shows you’re listening, you’re engaged with what they’re saying and thereby shows you care. Eye contact demonstrates you have confidence in your message – and pet owners looking for reassurance need to feel their vet surgeon or nurse is confident in what they’re saying! Additionally, a 1980s study on the effects of eye contact made by a teacher on pupils showed it enhanced their ability to recall what the teacher had said. So, making eye contact whilst discussing your patient’s care will likely help the pet owner remember more accurately what you have said.
  • Fiddling and fidgeting – don’t fiddle with your hair, it’s unprofessional and unhygienic. Avoid the temptation to drum your fingers or tap your foot or your pen as this demonstrates impatience and an unwillingness to listen to what your customer is saying. As what they are saying probably relates to the ailment their pet is displaying, their vet displaying signs of disinterest is unlikely to engender confidence or a good rapport!
  • When offering up a diagnosis or suggesting a course of treatment, showing your hands in a ‘palms up’ gesture is a good way of visually ‘offering’ your words up to your customer. It’s a universally recognised gesture of openness and an offer of assistance likely to encourage a positive acceptance. Avoid shrugging the shoulders though, as this can suggest you don’t care or don’t fully understand what you’re saying.

Getting body language right takes practice and consideration. If you’re having issues with how your non-verbal communications are being received, consider getting some professional help. Then step back into your consultation room with quiet confidence in your ability to handle the twists and turns that rollercoaster presents!


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