Héctor L. Osuna Léon
EdD, LVTg, MBA, MS
Dr. Osuna León completed his bachelor’s degree in veterinary technology at the University of Puerto Rico Medical Sciences Campus. Years later, he completed 2 master’s degrees and a doctorate in education with a concentration in educational leadership. For 28-plus years, he worked as a licensed veterinary technologist in veterinary clinics in Puerto Rico, while also teaching at Universidad Ana G. Méndez (UAGM). In 2015, he became the director of the department of veterinary technology, and from 2018 to 2020 he was the associate dean of the School of Health Sciences of UAGM. Currently, Dr. Osuna León is a regular faculty member of the department of veterinary technology at UAGM.Read Articles Written by Héctor L. Osuna Léon
Generally, veterinary technology programs effectively prepare veterinary nurses to perform their daily duties in all of the different work environments in which they practice their profession. These professionals are duly trained by existing programs from a scientific perspective to try to alleviate the illnesses of patients that are presented to a veterinary clinic every day. Veterinary nurses have proven their importance as part of the veterinary team in the performance of these daily tasks. Kogan et al say “the tasks and communication performed by veterinary technicians are vital for the successful operation of veterinary practices.”1
However, many of these programs, by giving greater emphasis to the veterinary-medical aspect, do not capitalize on administrative aspects or on the management of situations that may develop between employees and clients. Skills such as communication between veterinary nurses with their coworkers, supervisors, employers, and clients are topics that need to be developed among these professionals. This article presents the differences between verbal and nonverbal communication in transmitting messages sent and received by veterinary nurses. In addition, there are specific strategies that veterinary nurses can use to communicate effectively with their supervisors, coworkers, and pet owners.
Verbal and Nonverbal Communication
Communication may vary depending on how information is transmitted and received.2 The human being uses both verbal and nonverbal communication techniques to convey a message. One technique must be complementary to the other in such a way that the message that is carried is congruent. Veterinary nurses must be trained to be consistent in the messages they send to the individuals with whom they interact daily as part of their professional duties. It is essential to differentiate both concepts.
Verbal communication is where the message is verbalized using words, either orally or in writing. Veterinary nurses use verbal communication in conversations, interviews, books, letters, and emails, among other expressions.
Nonverbal communication occurs without the use of words, including gestures, looks, or body movements, among other expressions.2 The use of gestures, looks, posture, emoticons, facial and body expressions, etc., implies the use of nonverbal communication techniques.
For verbal communication to be a useful tool for veterinary nurses in transmitting the message that they want to convey to others, it is vitally important that they know and pay particular attention to their choice of words. Critical or accusatory words tend to create a resistant and defensive mentality among the veterinary team and clients and should not be used in the work environment. The author recommends that veterinary nurses use words or phrases such as “in some situations” or “usually” in order to normalize problems and reduce resistance. It is also recommended to avoid using the word “but” to join sentences and use the word “I” in messages rather than “you,” both of which may put people on the defensive. The use of proper rhythm, volume, and tone will also help veterinary nurses convey an appropriate message. BOX 1 presents the applications of these characteristics of the voice that facilitate communication.
The veterinary nurse must know basic medical terminology and when to use it properly, and at the same time choose the words that accurately describe the situation faced. Although veterinary technology programs develop this skill among their students, veterinary nurses have an inherent responsibility for their professional development that requires them to continually acquire and use new medical terminology. This can be achieved through the continuing education that this profession requires.
When taking a patient’s history with the owner, a veterinary nurse should be able to use verbal communication with its owner to obtain as much information as possible to procure the most accurate picture of the pet’s situation. Gathering information through questions is effective for learning, problem solving, aiding in decision making, and more clearly understanding the message that the client wants to convey. The use of closed, “yes” or “no” questions should be discouraged, even if the client is not sure of the answer. These questions are not used to link a conversation between the veterinary nurse and the client. The use of open-ended questions, including the words “what,” “how much,” “where,” “when,” and “why,” will allow for more detailed answers. For example, when the veterinary nurse asks the pet owners, “Did Sussie eat today?” the pet owners will reply with a simple “yes” or “no” without giving any further details. However, by asking “What and how much food has Sussie eaten in the last 24 hours?” we are allowing the clients to be more specific in their responses, which will help the veterinary nurse have more information at hand and continue to develop more effective questioning. These types of questions encourage self-expression and participation in the conversation. Other strategies veterinary nurses can use are listed in TABLE 1.
Nonverbal communication includes those unspoken elements of the conversation between the veterinary nurse and a pet owner or colleague that replace, reinforce, or contradict verbal communication. These include principles related to posture, facial expressions, eye contact, and hand gestures.
Posture is the easiest element to observe and interpret within the nonverbal communication of a veterinary nurse. This gives key signals about the character of the speaker and displays a lot about the attitude adopted in the particular situation.3 An upright posture during a conversation increases self-confidence, while it makes the veterinary nurse feel more secure in the information shared. In turn, the client will feel that the data received from the veterinary nurse comes from a well-informed person. Therefore, the information will be better received. Opposite to this position, a hunched posture may indicate insecurity and mistrust on the part of the veterinary nurse regarding the message being conveyed. The client will perceive this lack of security and trust and question the information being shared. This could affect the client’s relationship with the veterinary team and the veterinary practice in general.
To demonstrate to the client that the veterinary nurse is genuinely interested in their conversation, direct eye contact is important. This contact indicates and promotes an open communication channel between the parties, which will facilitate the exchange of ideas. The veterinary nurse should promote this type of contact and avoid the use of indirect eye contact, which may imply concern or the closure of the communication process. If a person avoids looking another in the eyes, it is usually because they feel threatened, insecure, or ashamed.4 The author recommends that any conversation between a veterinary nurse and a client should always be terminated by the latter.
Another important factor that every veterinary nurse must take into account when communicating is the time of day the message is received. This will signal the speed to which a message should be responded. Only when clients and coworkers perceive that their messages are attended to promptly will they be able to promote an effective communication environment with and within the veterinary care team. Generally, a message that is received when arriving at work tends to indicate some urgency. In the same way, by sending a message at the end of the day, for example, “See you at your convenience tomorrow,” the veterinary nurse is indicating the same level of urgency. A timely response indicates a genuine commitment on the part of the veterinary nurse to the message and the sender.
One particularly important aspect of nonverbal communication that requires a more detailed discussion is the concept of personal space. The veterinary nurse must ensure the integrity of the personal space that must exist between them and the pet owner, coworkers, and supervisors. This personal space is defined as the area that individuals maintain around themselves that others cannot break into without causing discomfort. It is a distance that is established between individuals that is highly influenced by culture. Sommer, who extensively researched the concept, defined personal space as an area with “invisible boundaries” that surround the person and is vital for effective communication between parties.5 When this space is violated, the message you want to send may not be received effectively. This distance is inversely proportional to the trust that exists between the communicating parties, which implies that the greater the trust between individuals, the lower the personal space between them.
A transgression of personal space could imply the deterioration of communication between the veterinary nurse and their coworkers or client. Many scientific studies have shown that when individuals do not respect prudent distances with the people they communicate with, they can feel intimidated and react with negative emotions.6-9 Therefore, it is the inherent responsibility of the veterinary nurse to ensure correct personal space so that these negative perceptions do not affect communication. The veterinary nurse must ensure at least a 4- to 9-foot distance when communicating.10 This distance will respond to the context of the conversation, the environment, and the trust that exists, among other considerations.
Multiple investigations have confirmed that veterinary nurses play a very important role in the different fields in which they perform their functions.1,11-14 Communication is essential between all members of the veterinary team so that the message to be transmitted reaches its recipients effectively. Veterinary nurses must develop techniques and strategies that allow them to deliver a coherent, congruent, and complete message to their interlocutors. In this way, they will be able to continue to demonstrate the effectiveness and necessity of their presence in the workplace. Therefore, it is the responsibility of all veterinary nurses to develop the skills that enable them to understand and apply the concepts of verbal and nonverbal communication when interacting with other individuals. The entire veterinary team must assume responsibility for the communication that takes place in the workplace; however, the veterinary nurse, being the main communication bridge between clients and veterinarians, has a greater responsibility to develop effective skills that allow them to carry out this important function effectively and efficiently.
While it is recognized that other techniques available could result in similar benefits, the strategies suggested in this article may prove to be essential tools that the veterinary nurse can implement immediately and use at any time. The important thing is the application of verbal and nonverbal communication techniques, be they these or others, on any occasion we can do so.
- Kogan LR, Wallace JE, Schoenfeld-Tacher R, Hellyer PW, Richards M. Veterinary technicians and occupational burnout. Front Vet Sci. 2020;7:328. doi:10.3389/fvets.2020.00328
- Lugo Z. Comunicación verbal y no verbal. Diferenciador. Accessed January 6, 2023. https://www.diferenciador.com/tipos-de-comunicacion
- Aller EG. Lo que la postura corporal dice sobre tu personalidad y actitud. Dinero en Imagen. April 7, 2016. Accessed January 6, 2023. https://www.dineroenimagen.com/blogs/talentoswork/lo-que-la-postura-corporal-dice-sobre-tu-personalidad-y-actitud/71160
- Barral PM. El contacto visual en psicología: tipos y significado. Psicología-Online. November 25, 2019. Accessed January 6, 2023. https://www.psicologia-online.com/el-contacto-visual-en-psicologia-tipos-y-significado-4808.html
- Sommer R. Personal Space: The Behavioral Basis of Design. Prentice-Hall, Inc; 1969.
- Esmark CL, Noble SM. Retail space invaders: when employees’ invasion of customer space increases purchase intentions. J Acad Mark Sci. 2018;46(1):477-496. doi:10.1007/s11747-016-0488-3
- Lewis L, Patel H, D’Cruz M, Cobb S. What makes a space invader? Passenger perceptions of personal space invasion in aircraft travel. Ergonomics. 2017;60(11):1461-1470. doi:10.1080/00140139.2017.1313456
- Abildgaard SJJ, Christensen BT. Personal space invasion in collaborative design. Paper presented at: The LearnX Design London 2017 Conference: The Allure of the Digital and Beyond; June 26-30, 2017; London, United Kingdom. Accessed February 15, 2023. https://research.cbs.dk/en/publications/personal-space-invasion-in-collaborative-design
- Suvei SD, Vroon J, Somoza-Sanchez VV, et al. “I would like to get close to you”: Making robot personal space invasion less intrusive with a social gaze cue. In: Antona M, Stephanidis C, eds. Universal Access in Human-Computer Interaction. Virtual, Augmented, and Intelligent Environments. Springer Cham; 2018:366-385.
- Redolosi E. Psicología: El espacio personal y emocional. ¿Sientes que te invaden? por Esther Redolosi. Costa Cádiz Comunicación. Accessed January 6, 2023. http://www.costacadizcomunicacion.es/psicologia-el-espacio-personal-y-emocional-sientes-que-te-invaden-por-esther-redolosi
- Ackerman N. Setting up veterinary nurse clinics. In Practice. 2015;37(4):199-202. doi:10.1136/inp.h1403
- Bourne AME. Public perception of registered veterinary nurses. Vet Nursing J. 2018;33(6):162-165. doi:10.1080/17415349.2018.1455546
- Boatright K. The most underutilized resource in your clinic. Todays Vet Pract. 2021;11(1):88-90.
- Jackson C. Veterinary technicians indispensable part of clinical care in veterinary college. VTechWorks. November 20, 2008. Accessed January 6, 2023. https://vtechworks.lib.vt.edu/bitstream/handle/10919/61528/2008-717.html