Steps to Empathy


Empathy in the workplace is a skill that everyone needs and can review from time to time.  We had an opportunity to do just that with the staff from The Ark Animal Hospital of San Diego.

The Ark Animal Hospital in San Diego, California won a drawing that we offered for a free workshop using one of the communication cases from our book, published by the American Animal Hospital Association.  Our purpose was to introduce learning through case studies and, in particular, learning four steps to empathy.  Armed with skills to demonstate empathy, veterinary staff can build rapport with their clients.

With three vet techs, three receptionists and a practice manager, clients and patients at Ark Animal Hospital are well served.  Seven of the nine staff attended the communication training. It was clear that the staff wanted the whole staff to perfect such skills.

The Art Animal Hospital is headed by two veterinarians, Dr. John Hetzler, the owner, and Dr. Lianna Chu, the associate. Their patients are cats, dogs, small birds and small mammals such as rabbits, guinea pigs, rats,hamsters and mice.  On the day of our workshop, Dr. Chu had her pet chihauau with her.  (One advantage of working in the veterinary practice: you get to bring your pet to work wit you!)  It’s a friendly place – which you know when you enter and they outline their offer of free kits, brochures, food samples and flea control, to start your new friend “off on the right paw!”

 We dramatized the case study, “Is Tabby Toby Too Tubby?”  The Ark Animal Hospital is NOT having a problem with overweight pets.  The case was chosen because it gave us an opportunity to talk about how vet staff members talk to their clients (or should or should not).  It just happened that when we were there, the Ark Animal Hospital was involved in a month-long drive for clients to attend to weight issues.

 But we were there to talk about communication. It was a fun session with lots of laughs, as well as serious attention to the missed opportunities we all experience when relating to others.

 This YOU-Tube clip will give you a flavor of the case (and why it brought lots of giggles.) 

More sobering, however, was the effort to identify useful responses, even empathetic replies, to clients. After participants wrote notes in response to several questions, we discussed what the vet in the case study could have said to Toby’s owner, which might have prevented her from storming out of the clinic. 

IMG_3991First was to listen – to the verbal and non-verbal signals.  What mood was the client in? What was on her mind?  Some small talk might be just the thing to establish or re-establish contact. “How was your vacation?”  “It’s hot out there today, isn’t it?”  “What’s new with Toby?”

When it’s time to respond, we considered the following:

  • Silence.  What an idea!  Actually say NOTHING and let the client fill in the space!  You might be surprised at what you’ll learn.
  • Parrot or paraphrase, repeating what you’ve heard.  It’s a great way to check on your perception, while letting your client know you’re been listening.
  • Decode her comments or her body language.  What is she thinking?  Equally important, how is she feeling?  Can you tell from her words, the tone of her voice, the look on her face?
  • Reflect back to her what you are hearing (and sensing).  Wow!  That’s the hard part.  And it’s the more powerful part.  “Mrs. Martin, I’m sensing that this procedure is frightening for you.  Am I reading you right?”  or “You’re apprehensive. Right?”  or “Are you confused?”

We practiced these kind of replies.  At the end of the workshop we all knew that it was just the beginning. Learning a “new script” is not easy.  It takes lots of practice. Try it.  You’ll experience the difficulty and the magic!  And send us a comment on how it went.

 Bye for now,

Carolyn and John