Only a small percentage of communication happens verbally. Along with what is said, communication is also:
- where it is said
- how it is said
- why it is said
- when it is said
- whom it is said to
- and, what is not said
Nonverbal communication is conveyed through facial expressions, body postures, gestures, and hand movements as well as through writing, reading, and listening.
Nonverbal communication adds meaning to the verbal. The following nonverbal communication skills and techniques, used with verbal ones, enhance your message of compassion and care.
Structuring the Environment
Structuring the environment means paying attention to the various elements of your hospital. Office, examination rooms, and consultation areas that can easily be moved and changed can be arranged to create the atmosphere you desire for your clients. For example, the way chairs and other furnishings in a room are placed can convey comfort, warmth, and understanding. The goal of structuring the environment is to invite your clients’ emotions to arise, instead of shutting them down. You might place chairs so that conversations can take place face-to-face. Think about reducing barriers such as desks or examination tables between you and your clients. You might adapt examination rooms so that euthanasia procedures can be performed on the examination table, on the floor, or even on a gurney rolled near the window so the pet and pet owner can be near the outdoors.
When anxiety is high, we all tend to become frozen into our positions. We forget we can stand up if we are sitting, walk around the room if we are standing, or even leave the room altogether if we need a few minutes to be alone. This rigidity can be overcome by a well-thought-out practice environment that allows for all of these options. Adapting the physical elements of your environment should therefore be a priority as you consider how to help your clients cope with grief.
Attending body language conveys that you are paying careful attention to the person who is talking to you. When your body posture is open, your eye contact is direct, and you are leaning slightly forward toward the speaker, you are demonstrating your availability and willingness to be of service. Attending behaviors include nonjudgmental facial expressions, encouraging gestures, affirmative head nods, and direct observation of what is occurring. You might get down on the same level with your clients by sitting if your client is sitting, or squatting to a child’s eye level when greeting or talking to a child.
Active listening means listening for feelings rather than for the factual content of conversations. There is a difference between merely hearing someone and actively listening to what he or she is saying. Active listening incorporates paraphrasing, asking questions, and using attending behaviors such as making eye contact and using open body posture to encourage clients to say more.
Two minor, but important, nonverbal techniques inherent in the process of active listening are necessary silences and minimal encouragers. Necessary silences take place when you remain silent while others vent their feelings or gather their thoughts, rather than babbling to fill the silent, empty spaces. When emotions are high, it is tempting to babble in order to fill in these spaces. However, remaining silent while others vent their feelings or gather their thoughts is often far more helpful. Minimal encourages are simple responses that encourage people to continue talking. Minimal encouragers let people know you are an active participant in the communication going on between the two of you. They include head nods and phrases that indicate you are involved, such as “Uh, huh,” “I see,” and “For instance?”
Responding with Touch
Touch provides comfort, demonstrates care and concern, and often takes the place of reassuring words. It often has a calming effect and can help people slow their thoughts and steady themselves emotionally. There is some scientific evidence that touch affects the body physiologically, slowing heart rate and lowering blood pressure. Touch can be used to soothe a grieving client, to bring someone who is rambling back to the point, or to pull someone who has drifted away back to the present.
When using touch with clients, limit it to neutral or safe areas as the shoulders and arms. Areas of the body that are not viewed as neutral or safe include the neck, hands, torso, lower back, and legs. In general, people dislike being patted on their backs or heads. This behavior connotes a sense of superiority on your part and can be viewed as condescending. If touching or hugging your clients makes you uncomfortable, a substitute technique is to touch your clients’ companion animals with care. Pet owners often judge your sensitivity based on how you handle their pets.
Demonstrations are a way to simplify and to “walk clients through” medical information or procedures. Verbal descriptions generally accompany demonstrations. When used together, verbal descriptions and demonstrations give clients a step-by-step account of what needs to be done for their companion animal.
Demonstrations might include the proper way to bandage a wound or give medicine to a cat. It might consist of practice sessions with a syringe and an orange so clients feel more confident about giving their pets injections. Tour of your surgery suite or recovery room might also be considered a demonstration. Especially when you explain the various procedures that will be done while your client’s pet is in each room.
When clients have a visual understanding of what certain treatments entail, it is often easier for them to decide whether those options are right for them and their pet. Videos demonstrating the key points of a treatment or surgical procedure can also aid in clients’ decision-making process.
The written information you provide clients is another form of nonverbal communication. Much of the medical jargon and information familiar to you is very unfamiliar to average pet owners. Therefore, it helps to write things down or to draw pictures for clients. Drawings and written materials allow clients to take information home so they can describe their pet’s situation accurately and in full detail to the other members of their family.
Check back soon to read our post on Verbal Communication: Clinical Communication Skills Part 2
Keep up the good work,
World by the Tail, Inc.