Why Listening is an Important Skill

How taking the time to listen to your veterinary clients and your staff can lead to better understanding and communication.

When I was in the third grade my teacher wrote on my report card that I talked too much. I adopted that identity and became quite a “talker.” In fact, I enjoyed being an expert in various categories and loved talking about what I knew. I saw myself as an educator.

It wasn’t until many years later when I took a course in listening that I learned that a) I didn’t have to do all the talking, b) I could learn a lot from others, c) listening really is a skill, d) listening opens others to listening and learning and e) this skill has the power to lead to deeper understanding and relationship building.

The first time I tried this new skill, I met a little girl who told me that she was going to have her tonsils out.  Before I took the course, I would have said, “Oh, that’s too bad,” or “Now you’ll get to have ice cream when you’re in the hospital.”

Instead I said, “Oh, really?”

She looked up at me and said hesitantly, “Yes, and I’m really scared.”

Anxious little girl Dahlia Golpariani

Courtesy Lee Golpariani

Anxious little girl: Dahlia Golpariani

That was the evidence I needed that there can sometimes be a strong feeling behind a simple statement and it may be important to hear it.

Listening Skills in the Veterinary Practice

You have, no doubt, seen this to be true every day in your veterinary practice. So many of your clients come to you when they have a concern or an emergency. As members of the healing profession it is tempting to respond quickly with a diagnosis and solution—to be the “talker” and tell them what to do. Or you might lean forward providing reassurance that the pet will soon be fine. Veterinary practices are busy places and there is only a limited amount of time for each client. There really isn’t time to listen beyond the initial intake statement.

A Harris Poll,1 however, showed that clients place more importance on the doctors’ interpersonal skills than on the doctors’ medical judgment. Clients assume you have the medical know-how they need. Their comfort level and willingness to return will be related more to their interaction with the doctor and other team members.

It’s also true that time spent listening can save time later—either because the information provided to the doctor is more thorough and accurate or because the client is more comfortable, more forthcoming and more open to hearing advice.

But listening is not as easy as it might seem.

How Silence is a Listening Skill

Silence is a part of listening, and it may be a surprise to know that silence is a skill. The skill starts with saying nothing and attending to your clients words—not easy when your mind is going quickly to a response. Remaining silent gives your client time to speak.  It reassures the other person that you want to listen.

To let your client know that you are listening, you might nod your head, lean forward, or make a minimal comment like “Oh?”  or “Really?” Eye contact and an appropriate body position can say, “I’m here and I’m listening.”

Parroting and Paraphrasing

A related “listening skill” is the ability to “parrot” or “paraphrase.” “Parroting,” that is, saying exactly what you have heard, is a way to be sure you are focusing on the other person and not spending the time thinking of what YOU want to say. It keeps the conversation with the other person and reassures that you are listening.

Paraphrasing has the same effect. In case, however, you have missed an essential element in the conversation, it can be even more useful.  “Are you saying Flurry is not eating at all?” By paraphrasing, you are checking with the other person, while also staying focused and providing reassurance that you are listening.

Invite Your Clients to Speak

Before moving on to solve the problem, another “listening skill” may be useful: an invitation. Sometimes people need to be encouraged to talk, to explain themselves or elaborate.  You can simply say, “Say more about that,” or “Can you elaborate?” or  “What do you mean?” or “I’d like to know more.”  This assumes that you will remain silent to hear the response and perhaps parrot or paraphrase what you hear.

The Power of Empathy

Listening involves hearing the total message.  This means taking in the words, non-verbal signals and feelings behind the words. When we parrot or paraphrase we are usually only feeding back the words, the content of the message.

But with the words, or behind the words, are feelings. Sometimes they are verbalized, as in “I am worried….”  But often feelings are only expressed in the tone of voice or facial expression.  For example, “I’m sorry to be late, but my car wouldn’t start” is a matter of fact, but the frown or growl might lead you to believe that the speaker is angry and frustrated.  Instead of parroting or paraphrasing, this would be an opportunity to reflect back to the speaker the feelings that you are “hearing.”  For example, “You sound downright frustrated.” Or: “I sense you’ve had a frustrating morning.”

This type of listening is often called “reflective listening.”  Psychologist Carl Rogers introduced this skill, which he called “active listening.”2

This form of listening is powerful.  Why?

When the other person knows that his or her feelings are heard — along with the content of the message — several things happen:

  1. Your client relaxes; the emotion is defused;
  2. Your client becomes aware of feelings that are driving the words;
  3. Your client is better able to manage the concern and;
  4. Rapport is established.  

The speaker feels respected and understood.  While you may not agree or appreciate the other person’s message, you are accepting it and respecting it.  

As Rogers writes in "Active Listening" from Communicating in Business Today:

"Active listening is an important way to bring about changes in people. Despite the popular notion that listening is a passive approach, clinical and research evidence clearly shows that sensitive listening is a most effective agent for individual personality change and group development. Listening brings about changes in peoples' attitudes toward themselves and others; it also brings about changes in their basic values and personal philosophy. People who have been listened to in this new and special way become more emotionally mature, more open to their experiences, less defensive, more democratic, and less authoritarian.

When people are listened to sensitively, they tend to listen to themselves with more care and to make clear exactly what they are feeling and thinking. Group members tend to listen more to each other, to become less argumentative, more ready to incorporate other points of view. Because listening reduces the threat of having one’s ideas criticized, the person is better able to see them for what they are and is more likely to feel that his contributions are worthwhile."

Are you listening?


Are you listening to what your clients are truly saying?

Empathic Listening in Your Practice

Think of comments you’ve heard from your clients and try to listen for the feelings.

For example, “$2000?  I can’t believe you are charging this much!”  

“I HAVE to see the doctor TODAY!”  

“There is NO PLACE TO PARK on this whole block!”  

Wendy Hauser, DVM, of president and founder of Peak Veterinary Consulting, sees this power in her work.  She says, “I’ve already believed that the most valuable tools that I take into the examination room are my ears.  Truly listening to my clients allows me to elicit their perspective, which leads to an effective partnership.  The outcome is that clients feel heard, understood and understand, that they are a valued part of the health care process.”

Sometimes your teammates share feelings, too, such as, “I need to tell you that I saw my doctor yesterday and he told me that my mammogram shows me to have stage one breast cancer.”  

“I’m sorry to be late. My husband took my car keys.”  

“I’ve got a little boy who drags his feet in the morning.” 

“Diane is driving me crazy. She’s always gossiping about the other techs.”

Putting It To Work

Think about how you might respond the next time you hear such comments. To get the feel for listening, try it in a non-threatening situation—like listening to a little girl who is facing a tonsillectomy!

Carolyn C. Shadle, Ph.D., is the co-owner of ICS Workplace Communication (www.veterinariancommunication.com ). Shadle was awarded her Ph.D. by the State University of New York at Buffalo in interpersonal and organizational communication and has trained managers and team members in businesses as diverse as General Mills and Oracle’s Sun Microsystems. She is a certified Myers-Briggs assessor and trained with Gordon Training International. Find her on Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and Pinterest.


  1. Harris Poll, as reported in the Wall Street Journal, September 28, 2014
  2. Carl Rogers, PhD. and Richard Farson, PhD, Communicating in Business Today, R.G. Newman, M.A. Danzinger, M.Cohen (eds.) D.C. Heath & Company, 1987.
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