I got an idea for this story after having a prolonged email exchange with the editor at this magazine, Ellyce Rothrock. In talking about my openness about depression, I found out her 81-year-old father is in denial about the extreme anxiety that has 100 percent affected him throughout his whole life (and the family’s by extension). The two of us now know where our relatives homesteaded, where we live, what meds we take for mental health, and even our favorite beverage of choice. We are now connected at a richer, deeper level that will affect our path forward, both personally and professionally. I plan on keeping tabs on her and her dad.
I’ve always liked to talk. Some would say too much. My late mother, Virginia, said I shot past baby talk and went right into full sentences before the age of one. She may have been exaggerating, but I do remember as a little kid that some of my older brother’s friends would pay me to stop talking for a certain period.
I didn’t get many payoffs, but I guess the gift of gab ended up serving me well, as for 17 years I was the resident veterinary contributor on ABC’s Good Morning America and a popular speaker at veterinary conferences around the globe. Instead of Mighty Mouse I was Mighty Mouth. However, my parents taught me a valuable lesson from an early age: You have one mouth and two ears, and you should listen twice as much as you talk.
There are several advantages to being a great listener, and not all of them are purely altruistic. Here are some of my experiences with the power of listening.
A life story
I amp up the value of listening by asking questions—lots and lots of them. In my experience, people are hesitant to talk because they think no one cares, or they vomit words in an attempt to get as much out as they can before they’re interrupted. The vast majority of people I know from all walks of life listen to respond. That is, whatever story is being told, they want to piggyback onto it with their own similar story (usually one they think will trump what’s being told) or try to shift the conversation in a direction they favor. What I do (and teach) is to listen—really listen. Don’t scan your phone or survey the room with a head swiveling like the possessed child in The Exorcist. Once people realize you’re listening to their story and not hurrying them to finish (through your interruptions or body language), they become elated.
Just like we can’t look at an animal and determine the details of its internal organ health, we can’t look at or superficially interact with people and expect to know what makes them tick. What was their childhood like? Were they raised by both parents or a single parent? Did they live in one home with lifelong buddies or ping-pong as an Army brat, constantly having to make new friends? Single child, oldest in the family, or the baby? Did they grow up in the city, suburbs, or country? Were their parents professionals or blue collar? Did their house have love and harmony, or was it hellish? Were they on sports teams or other groups and learn teamwork, or did they prefer to be alone? Did they excel at school, and what level of education did they achieve? Are they doing what they always dreamed of, or did they always see themselves in a different career?
Easy does it
Listening offers so many benefits for both parties. The person being listened to feels appreciated, cared for, connected, and special. The listener gets to see key parts of someone’s life’s path, with important mileposts captured, processed, retained, and utilized. Just like you do with a pet owner and patient when you ask a series of questions to determine an accurate diagnosis and treatment plan, you start a logical and practiced series of questions. For example, where did you grow up? Did you live in Texas your whole childhood? What did you dream of being when you grew up? What did your parents do for a living? Do you have animals?
What has this got to do with you?
So how does the premise of this article relate to veterinary medicine or your life? Where doesn’t it impact your life?
At the practice I work at in northern Idaho, I typically arrive for work in the morning with fresh-baked sweets and huddle up for few minutes for small talk or a deep dive if the situation demands it (one employee was recently facing a double mastectomy). But it’s in the exam room where I mine perhaps the richest vein. I routinely ask pet owners questions about their lives and their pets’ lives. Here’s a sampling of what I might ask:
- Have you taken or are planning a vacation this year?
- What are your kids doing now?
- How is work going?
- Are you rooting for the ____ (sports team, either high school, college, or pro)?
- What’s the genesis of your pet’s name?
- Where does your pet sleep?
- What changes have you noticed in your pet’s appetite, bathroom habits, activity?
- Are there any behaviors in your pets, including the ones at home, that you’d like to improve?
Asking about a vacation, family, work, fandom, and hobbies connects you personally. Asking the genesis of the pet’s name helps you to remember it because it’s now tied to a story. Asking about changes in the pet’s routine allows you to catch things early on (e.g. the pet might be less playful because of pain, not age).
Behavior questions allow us to intervene and help before a pet is removed from the home for treatable behavioral problems. Often pet owners have pets they don’t bring in for veterinary services, so asking about them (and the genesis of their names, too) can reconnect them to veterinary care.
But if we don’t listen—really listen—as well as ask questions, we may never have the chance to solve much.
Marty Becker, DVM, writes every other month for Veterinary Practice News. He is a Sandpoint, Idaho, practitioner and founder of the Fear Free initiative. For more information about Fear Free or to register for certification, go to fearfreepets.com. Columnists’ opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Veterinary Practice News.