Verbal communication skills make use of the spoken word. When using verbal communication skills, pay attention to your tone of voice and the pacing of your speech. These have great influence on the meaning of your words. For instance, if you use the appropriate words to describe a situation but say them at a very fast pace, you may be viewed as rushed, nervous, or insensitive. However, if you speak the same words too slowly, you may be viewed as dull or condescending. Monitor your voice tone when you are working with clients who are grieving. Words that are spoken softly and at a slightly slower pace than normal are usually viewed as more comforting than louder, more fast-paced speech.
Too effectively convey your message of compassion and care, use the following verbal communication skills and techniques along with the non-verbal ones described here.
The verbal communication skill of acknowledging is recognizing the existence or truth of something. It encourages people to deal openly and honestly with the emotions inside of them and with the reality of the situation at hand. You might say, for example, “I know you loved Ruby very much and that her death is very painful for you.” Using this technique helps your clients acknowledge their own feelings about a situation.
The verbal communication skill of normalizing is lending credibility to others’ thoughts, feelings, behaviors, and experiences. In other words, letting them know that their responses are normal. The symptoms of grief can seem quite disturbing when they are not clearly understood. Inform clients that it is normal for a wide range of emotions to accompany loss. You might say, ” Your tears honor your special relationship with Ruby. You two were together for 10 years and were best friends. It’s normal to miss her.”
Giving permission is a verbal communication skill that means encouraging clients to think, feel, and behave however they need to (within safe limits) without fear of judgment. This technique also allows clients to ask for what they want or to make requests that are important to them. For instance, before euthanasia, clients may ask for:
- a soft blanket or floor pad to lay their animal on
- to be able to feed their pet one last time
- to be present when their pet dies
You might say, “You and Ruby have shared a lot throughout your lives together. What else would you like to do for her as we plan for this difficult day?”
Asking Appropriate Questions
The verbal communication skill of asking appropriate questions helps you gather valuable information about the circumstances surrounding your clients’ loss. Failure to ask clients questions can lead to problems; there many consequences to making assumptions about your clients’ needs.
The most helpful questions are open-ended, not close-ended. A close-ended question can be responded to with “yes,” “no,” “fine,” or some other one-or-two-word answer. Open-ended questions elicit more detailed information and create opportunities for clients to tell you more about what they are experiencing. Open-ended questions often begin with “how” or “what” rather than with “why.” “How” and “what” questions elicit thoughtful explanations. You might say, for example, “How will you know when Ruby is no longer enjoying life?” Questions that begin with “why” often elicit “I don’t know” answers. “Why” questions also have a tendency to put clients on the defensive, making them feel they need to explain themselves to you. One word of caution: A well-placed, open-ended question can launch a lengthy client monologue. So, use this technique only when you have adequate time to spend with clients.
The paraphrasing verbal communication skill is the restatement or summary of clients’ communication in order to test your understanding of their comments. When you paraphrase clients’ comments, it reassures them that the intended message got through. It also provides clients with the opportunity to clarify what was meant if your understanding is inaccurate.
When paraphrasing words and emotions, it is also important to attend to your voice tone and pacing. For example, if a client is complaining loudly, you might offer an immediate response in an equally firm tone of voice, confirming that you understand there is a problem. Then, you can quickly move your client to a private room. Here, you can attempt to alter their emotional level and gain some control over the situation. Do this by lowering your voice and slowing down your pace. In turn, this may help slow down your client’s side of the conversation. The goal is to create an atmosphere more conducive to mutual listening and problem solving.
There are many ways to paraphrase. Easy ways to begin paraphrase statements are:
- “It seems as though…,”
- “It sounds like…,”
- “If I hear you correctly, you feel…”
A final way to use paraphrasing is to summarize the main points of a lengthy conversation to ensure that you’ve understood your client’s concerns. If your client says, “I don’t know what I will do if Ruby dies while I’m not home. I’ll never forgive myself.” Then, you might say, “It seems like you’re worried that she’ll die without you, and you’ll feel guilty.”
Paraphrasing serves many purposes. It can…
- help clients identify their own feelings or understand a dilemma.
- let them know that you are listening and that you understand what they are going through.
- encourage them to share.
- enable them to work toward closure or to make a difficult decision.
Self-disclosing is a verbal communication skill that means briefly sharing a personal experience when it may be appropriate and of use to clients. Self-disclosing about your own experiences with companion-animal death can help your clients feel less alone in their grief. When using self-disclosure, it is very important not to shift the focus away from your client and onto yourself. You might say, “I’ve lost pets to cancer, too, and I understand how difficult it is to say this final goodbye.”
The verbal communication skill, gentle confrontation, can be used to point out discrepancies or inconsistencies in what clients have said or done. It can also be used to set limits on clients’ behaviors or expectations. Gentle confrontation may take the form of a question or a statement. For example, “You’ve been bringing Ruby to me for almost four years and, together, we’ve helped her through many medical problems. I can hear your disappointment about her failing condition, but I have to wonder if the anger you’re expressing is really more about the failure of her latest treatment than about the quality of care she is receiving here.”
Holding Your Ground
Clients in need, or those who are upset, angry, or grieving, are often demanding and difficult to understand. They are prone to losing perspective. Because of their strong emotions, they may behave in ways in which they would not otherwise dream of behaving. Gentle confrontation can be a good communication technique because it can help you “stand up for yourself” without becoming defensive. With it you can sensitively, but firmly, help clients understand your own limitations, as well as the established policies of your practice. For example, you can say something like, “I can see that you are disappointed that you can’t stay with Nugget overnight. I know this is frustrating for you. Our policy prevents clients from spending the night in our clinic. I wish it could be different for you, but I want to honor my clinic’s decision.”
Staying on Topic
Gentle confrontation may also be used to narrow the content of clients’ conversation. Some clients ramble on about topics unrelated to animal care, making it difficult for you to cover pertinent topics with them. Clients sometimes steer conversations off track because they don’t want to make difficult decisions or hear what you have to say. Gentle confrontation allows you to redirect these conversations and keep them on course. Begin with a comment on the subject the client has brought up, and then redirect to the subject you wish to pursue. You might say, “It would be easy for us to spend our time together discussing your son’s upcoming wedding. Yet, we’re meeting today to talk about what’s best for Ruby. It may be time for us to make a plan for her end-of-life care.”
Immediacy combines gentle confrontation and self-disclosure. The purpose of immediacy is to comment on the unspoken feelings or thoughts that exist in an interpersonal relationship. The use of immediacy requires you to talk openly with your clients about what you are feeling or experiencing right now. It is an extremely important skill for almost any difficult situation. This is because it allows you to be honest with the other person about your feelings. For example, you might say: “Sharon, you seem upset with me. Did something I said offend or hurt you in some way?” Another example would be, “Mrs. Watson, I would like to work with you to help Ruby. It would be helpful to me if you would share any concerns you might have so we can move forward from here.”
This technique is most effective when used in a well-established relationship. You are commenting directly on the client’s thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. Keep in mind, a new client may feel intimated, exposed, or judged by this. If the technique is used too soon or too harshly, clients may react defensively.
E-mail, Telephone, and Social Media Conversations
The verbal communication techniques described in this blog are intended to be used during face-to-face interactions. We understand that e-mail, text messaging, social media, and telephone conversations can also be powerful communication tools when used by skilled communicators. However, they can also lead to misunderstandings. Be mindful that the visual cues that people rely on for accurate interpretation of words are missing.
When using e-mail, text messaging, the telephone, or any other social media, keep the following points in mind:
When using the telephone, remember your voice is a powerful tool.
Pay special attention to the tone and pitch of your voice and the pacing of your words. In addition, prepare yourself for potentially emotional calls. Find a quiet, controlled environment where you won’t be distracted or interrupted.
Do not convey details about emotional topics.
Conversations about a pet’s death, relapse, or body care arrangements should not be had via e-mail, text message, social media message, or voice mail. Instead, ask your clients to call or visit you at your clinic.
Maintain your clients’ confidentiality.
If another family member or a coworker answers the telephone or returns your call, it may be best to refrain from providing them with details of your patient’s condition. Simply instruct the person who answers to ask your client to return your call. Of course, do not blog about specific details of your cases. If you’re a blogger or if you post updates about your professional life on any social media platform, remember that your clients may read these, too.
If clients have not returned your e-mail, text message, or call within a reasonable amount of time, try again.
Messages get lost, and clients, especially emotional ones, sometimes forget to respond. It’s your responsibility to make contact with your client. It is important that you keep trying until that task is accomplished.
Remember that when you contact clients during work hours, they may be unable to speak with you about emotional issues.
The client may not have permission to take personal calls or the privacy needed to speak to you. If you do reach a client at work, tell them that you need to discuss a difficult issue and ask if it is a convenient time to talk. The client may prefer to arrange a telephone appointment for a time when they can speak more freely from a private area.
Give clients choices regarding the kind of information you will share with them in an e-mail or telephone call.
Be sure to also ask how much detail they want you to include before you proceed with these forms of communication. For example, on the telephone you might say, “I would be happy to explain the details of Misty’s surgery to you. Would you like that information now?” It’s best to ask rather than to overwhelm your client with information. One client may want to know everything immediately, whereas another will prefer to come in and see you face-to-face to hear the information.
A Final Note on Clinical Communication
Everyone is different. Factors about your client’s past, as well as their culture, beliefs, etc., might influence their opinions about what is acceptable in terms of extensive medical treatments and end-of-life decisions for a pet. Keep in mind that individual differences must be considered when communicating with clients.
Keep up the good work,
World by the Tail, Inc.