I think most of us believe knowledge is power. We are caregivers, healers and scientists. Of course, we recognize the benefits of accumulating information on which we can base our decisions.
I do think, however, that we may over-value knowledge while under-valuing actual skills. We don’t give airline pilots a book on how to fly and then release them with a loaded 747 because when it really comes down to it, we know that understanding something is very different from actually doing it. This is the difference between knowledge and skill.
In a veterinary context, knowledge is knowing what to do in a life-saving surgery, and skill is being able to actually pull it off. It’s one thing to memorize what the customer service research says you should communicate to a furious pet owner, and something different to actually stand in the room and gracefully do it. Our training as veterinary professionals is (or at least should be) loaded with opportunities to acquire knowledge. Skill building is much more of a challenge, but I believe it’s also at least as important.
When people ask me what are the absolute best things they can do to be more effective at working with clients in the exam room, I see this as a question about building skills. There is nothing you can read and no lecture you can sit through that will radically change what you’re able to do day-in-and-day-out with pet owners. If you want to be really great, you have to build your exam room skills and not just your exam room knowledge.
That’s why the two things I recommend over anything else when it comes to excelling in the exam room are skill-based. They take time and commitment to do and, as a result, few people take me up on my advice. Still, some people do and they tend to benefit greatly so I feel that it’s at least worth me continuing to put my encouragement out into the world.
Before I tell you my two biggest recommendations, let me just say that these are not meant to be seen as simple or convenient. They are meant to truly make a difference, and making a difference takes time and effort. As with most things in life, we tend to get out what we put in.
Without further ado, here are the two things that changed my career and that I recommend for anyone who truly wants to become significantly better at working with pet owners.
Toastmasters is a… wait for it… public speaking club! I know. Super exciting and not-at-all terrifying. I bet you’re already googling it.
Toastmasters has chapters literally all over the world. There is probably more than one in your town right now. When I started as a veterinarian, I convinced the practice where I worked to let a chapter I was in meet every other week in our break room. I later joined a different club that met early in the mornings at a Mexican restaurant. The club served huevos rancheros at every meeting (which seems like a bold choice given how nervous people are before speaking in public) and it was magical.
Toastmasters taught me how to organize my thoughts, communicate points clearly, and build an internal stopwatch to keep track of time. It made me get more comfortable with handling off-the-wall questions, collecting myself, speaking confidently, and talking off the cuff. I also got immediate feedback on my word choice, body language and use of “filler” words (like “um” and “err”).
Nothing I have done helped my confidence and my ability to get heard as much as Toastmasters. If you think you might like it, I strongly recommend giving it a try. Know that each group is different and you may want to visit a few before picking the one that’s right for you. Even if you just do it for a few months, the benefits are plentiful.
Improvisational Theater (Improv) Classes
After doing Toastmasters for years, I decided I wanted a new challenge. On a lark, I googled improv comedy in my hometown. I found a local theater that was starting improv classes for beginners in 2 weeks. That was 9 years ago and I still do improv every week.
“Yeah right, Andy. My technician should take improvisational theater classes,” I hear you saying. I get it. It ain’t what the ole farm vets used to do, but that doesn’t mean it’s not honest-to-god one of the best things out there to make you more dynamic and effective in the exam room.
If you want to be stellar in the exam room, you’d better be comfortable working with the unknown, reading other people, reacting authentically, and collaborating to create a shared experience between you and the other person. Improvisational theater, or “improv” as the cool kids call it, teaches all of these skills and makes you do them (in front of other people) over and over again. It builds quick-thinking, active listening and conflict management skills unlike anything else I have found.
If you are wary of committing to a series of improv classes, or if there aren’t any in your area, you can certainly give improv a quick try at the online workshop Uncharted is offering in about 2 weeks. It’s called What Vet Med Can Learn from Improv, and it’s being taught by Dr. Adam Little. You can learn more here.
So there you have it. Toastmasters and Improv classes: My best advice. If you have been considering either of these fun diversions as a new hobby, I highly recommend them. Even if you just try them out for a few months, I know you’ll get skills that can make your interactions with pet owners smoother and more rewarding. You may also end up with a bit of a new friend group that doesn’t have anything to do with veterinary medicine, and I think having one of those is probably healthy for all of us.
If neither of these activities lights your fire, but you are sold on the idea that building skills by working on something, then getting advice and then working on it some more, maybe take a look at the April Uncharted Veterinary Conference (21st-23rd) or just becoming an Uncharted member.
I founded Uncharted 5 years ago with the belief that we get better by doing things, not just reading or hearing about them. Uncharted is a mixture of live events, virtual workshops and an online community that is always trading insight and advice to help people grow and enjoy practice. Some of my greatest friendships have come from there, and I know I’m not alone in that. The April conference is all workshop and discussion-based, and anyone who has attended it before will tell you it’s something special.
Please take care and have a great rest of your week!