Understanding Empathy in the Veterinary Industry

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Empathy is a loosely used word within the veterinary industry. But what is it really? Why is it an important quality for effective professionals?

Empathy is defined as the ability to sense another person’s emotions and imagine what the other person might be feeling or thinking. Meanwhile, sympathy is feeling bad for someone or being able to identify with what a person feels.

A lot has been written about how caring the veterinary profession is and how the extent of our care leads to high levels of burnout, stress, and emotional fatigue.

Compassion fatigue is also something that needs to be taken into account. How do veterinary professionals deal with emotional pet owners? Contrary to what most may imagine, veterinarians and those within the veterinary industry may, one way or another, have experienced having a difficult conversation with an emotional client.

Veterinary teams across the US are learning to better communicate with clients so that these difficult interactions become less stressful. The answer does not fall on veterinary professionals to end up caring more but for them to actually learn how to hone specific communication skills that will help them build stronger relationships with pet owners and eventually reduce the risk of compassion fatigue.

Expressing empathy can be more difficult than sympathizing with someone because it involves being vulnerable with someone. Practicing empathy requires being patient and mindful.

How do we practice empathy?

Conveying empathy is a two-part process where there is a need to understand the other person’s feelings and supportively communicate your understanding to him or her. As veterinarians, it is important that we strive to understand what the pet owner is feeling. So often in the industry, we jump to try to figure out the problem that we don’t consider the first crucial part – how to actually express empathy so our clients don’t feel as if this is just a usual transaction for us.

Teams need to practice active listening – less talk, more listening, to be able to succeed. Try becoming more mindful of your clients’ non-verbal communication – their facial expressions, their gestures, even down to their body posture – so you are able to tell how the pet owner feels.

Paying attention to the messages conveyed in non-verbal communication helps. Make eye contact when conveying empathy, show that you are interested in their pet’s welfare. Lean in, open body posture are all empathetic non-verbal communications.

What should we be saying?

Being empathetic can go a long mile. Great veterinary professionals sometimes share their own personal experiences with their clients. It doesn’t have to be often, but in times when clients are really in despair and you have something to share that’s on a more personal note to make him or her feel that you really understand what they are experiencing.

Let’s not mistake empathy with sympathy. Below are some sample expressions that convey empathy:

  • I can imagine that what you experienced must have been very frustrating and upsetting.
  • It sounds like you did everything you could for (insert pet name).
  • I know it’s daunting and you feel discouraged because you are unsure of what to do, but…

Not all are natural when it comes to expressing empathy, but it is something that can be learned over time. It is important that veterinary clinics practice the skill of empathy with each other, so everyone can easily express it to clients.

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