I learned about the effectiveness of silence from my first boss. I’ll be honest with you – he scared me to death. It took me the better part of a year to call him by his first name. Part of the intimidation factor was his silence. He would ask me a question, I would answer and then……nothing! For like 10 or 15 seconds! At the time, I found our communication frustrating. Shutting up is not one of my strong points. I love to talk, and I hate awkward silence. After three years of observing my boss and his penchant for silence, I still didn’t fully appreciate his method of communication.
Later, as I attended courses on management and communication, I began to realize the genius of closing one’s mouth. Here are some things I learned.
1. There is nothing wrong with thinking before you speak. In fact, I highly recommend it. While it doesn’t feel comfortable at first, it feels way more comfortable than blurting out something idiotic. Don’t be afraid to take the time you need to formulate an answer. ESPECIALLY if you take that time because you were listening to understand rather than reply. Really listen to what the other person is saying. Once they are done, take a second to come up with a response. As an introvert, this was incredibly difficult for me. I like to have my answer prepared ahead of time. The problem with that is you miss what the other person is saying (and their body language) when you’re inside your head writing prose.
2. Uncomfortable silence is irresistible. People rush to fill it with all kinds of words. Here’s an example: I had a colleague who was frustrated at work. He was immersed in gossip and infighting. He and some of the other staff members had resorted to taking petty revenge on each other for both real and imagined slights. He was telling me about how one of his coworkers had refused to work for him when he wanted to go on vacation. He decided to wait for the next time she asked him to work for her and refuse no matter the circumstances. I didn’t really know what to say. “You’re kind of being a jerk” came to mind, but while I was rolling around in my head how to phrase that constructively, I realized that he was waiting for me to answer and getting uncomfortable. I started to open my mouth, and he said, “Of course, with my luck, it’ll be a sick kid or a death in the family and then that would make me kind of a jerk”. He said it, I didn’t. Win-win.
3. “I don’t exactly know how to respond to that” is almost as good as silence. I said that once to a client who was yelling at me because I “let” her husband spend $350 on the dog when they couldn’t afford it. The silence after I said it didn’t last long. She quickly said “I’m going to talk to my husband about this” and hung up on me. Great idea!
4. When you ask a client a question, stop and let them answer! How often do we shoot ourselves in the foot by recommending a product or service and then rush to offer a less expensive option or move on without letting them respond? Try this, “If we do the fluids, nausea medication and blood work, the total will be $300. Is that going to be ok with you?” Now, press your lips together like fleas are trying to get in. You can talk if they don’t say anything for 10 seconds. Count slowly.
5. When someone is talking to you, focus on them. Listen to what they say. Notice what they don’t say. If their face and body disagree with the words coming out of their mouth, STOP. I had a client who agreed to a treatment plan for her elderly, chronically ill cat. Because I was watching her face as she spoke, I saw her eyes fill with tears. I reached out and touched her hand. “What did I say that upset you?” I asked her. She gave into the tears and told me her husband was on hospice care and she just didn’t think she could continue taking care of both him and the cat. Despite the fact that we had spoken about hospice care and euthanasia for the cat previously, she felt uncomfortable discussing it. I wouldn’t have had a clue if I hadn’t been listening and watching.
6. Sometimes the silence lasts for hours or days. There is nothing wrong with declining to talk about something until you’ve had time to think about it. “Let me look into that and get back to you” or “I can’t discuss this right now. Let me get my thoughts together and call you later”. If a client is being abusive on the phone, I will tell them that I’m unable to talk to them like this. I let them know I’m going to hang up the phone and we can talk when we’ve both had a chance to cool off. Then I hang up.
7. If a client on the phone is just venting and upset, I give them 100% of my attention. I don’t say a word. Almost always, they will pause and say “Are you still there?” (This means you’re doing it right.) “Yes, I’m still here. I’m listening to everything you’re saying and taking notes to be sure I get it right. Is there anything else you want to tell me before I ask you to listen to me?” If there is, I continue to listen. If they end up not letting me speak at all, that’s ok. Until they get it all out, they’re not going to hear what I say anyway.
8. I hate it when people accuse me of doing something wrong, especially if that “something wrong” was declared wrong by the internet. I’ve gone back and forth with clients in person, by phone and in email about food, products, procedures and diseases. At some point, you just have to know they aren’t going to be educated and let it go. If that means letting them have the last word, so be it. It’s not worth the drain on your positive energy to continue beating your head against a brick wall. If there are subjects that really set you off, create a handout or a glossary item in your software that allows you to educate without having to type or talk it all out.
9. Turn off your phone. If you need to have a serious conversation with a client or staff member, everyone needs to be on DO NOT DISTURB notice. If you are performing euthanasia, shut it down. Unless there is a dire emergency, it can wait. Put your phone on airplane mode – don’t even let it be on vibrate. Nothing should distract you from the conversation.
10. Sit in silence and be still. Sometimes our brains are what need to be silent. If you are overwhelmed and upset, take 5 minutes in your car, locked in the bathroom or in the isolation ward to take a few deep breaths and shake it off. The veterinary world is amazingly noisy. Just a few minutes of quiet (heck, get some earplugs if you must) can make all the difference.
Once you start practicing silent communication (otherwise known as listening), you will become much more adept at making your world a better place. You will get so much more out of listening than talking. Solutions become more obvious, tasks become simpler and letting loud people be loud without competing is a relief. So, take the pressure off, zip your lip and prepare become a lot better at communication – without saying anything at all!
Dr. Cherie Buisson is a veterinarian and lecturer who lives in Largo, FL. She spends her time in feline-only practice, hospice practice and teaching other veterinary professionals about hospice, euthanasia and compassion fatigue. Dr. Buisson is the owner of Helping Hands Pet Hospice in Seminole, FL as well as the founder of A Happy Vet.