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Why mastering soft skills equals success in the veterinary field

They aren’t learned in school, yet they are critically important in order to thrive in our profession

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Photo courtesy ©BigStockPhoto.comIn veterinary school, students learn hard skills, the tangible, technical assets that allow us to perform our jobs. Mastery of these skills is vital, but so is developing a complementary set of skills: soft skills.

These skills aren’t thoroughly and systematically learned in school, yet they are critically important to thrive in our profession, which, of course, is 99 percent a “people business.”

According to Dr. Google, soft skills are “personal attributes that enable someone to interact effectively and harmoniously with other people.” Dr. Wikipedia offers a little more detail: “Soft skills are a combination of interpersonal people skills, social skills, communication skills, character traits, attitudes, career attributes, and emotional intelligence quotient, among others, that enable people to effectively navigate their environment, work well with others, perform well, and achieve their goals with complementing hard skills.”

Here is an alphabetical, though nonexhaustive list of 20 soft skills we all should strive to master.

1. Ability to work under pressure

Acting with grace under pressure is a priceless skill. Calmly and quickly working through high-pressure situations literally can make the difference between life and death. True professionals rarely lose their composure regardless of stressors.

2. Adaptability

Situations can change on a dime in veterinary medicine. If you are unable to roll with the punches, life will be more difficult for you and your staff. You may not be able to control what enters your doors, how owners react, or patient outcomes despite your best efforts, but you can control how you adapt.

3. Communication

This is the mother of all soft skills. Poor communication leads to unhappy clients and miserable coworkers. One of our challenges: explaining complex information in simple terms. Learning how to communicate well never ends. Ironically, learning how to speak clearly starts with learning how to listen.

4. Conflict resolution

Conflict is part of human nature. We interact with multiple personalities—expect disagreements. You must be able to control your emotions, identify mutually beneficial resolutions, and compromise in situations where an ideal conclusion is just not possible.

5. Critical thinking

Thinking outside the box is imperative. Looking differently at a patient or a situation can reveal overlooked solutions and may bring to light different trends in patient responses and client compliance.

6. Decisiveness

Prompt decision-making affects all aspects of the clinic. Indecisiveness delays workflow and can prevent good patient care. From the reception team deciding to prioritize a patient to a veterinarian clarifying patient medications and dosages to a technician deciding to alert the doctor something is wrong, decisiveness is needed constantly.

7. Emotional intelligence

Emotional intelligence (EQ) is not a skill everyone possesses but anyone can improve. EQ requires bypassing your reptilian brain when reacting to delicate situations and using your rational brain.

8. Flexibility

Flexibility allows you to adapt to unexpected changes. Your coworkers will thank you for keeping your cool even when the beautiful plan you had for the day suddenly falls apart.

9. Interpersonal skills

You can’t achieve long-term success if you can’t play in the sandbox together. The getting along with others will help clients feel more comfortable with your recommendations and improve compliance, as well as improve your relationship with your coworkers. Poor interpersonal skills affect every aspect of your career.

10. Leadership

Regardless of your role, there will be many moments when you must exhibit leadership. One example is during a cardiac arrest. If you happen to be “on the scene,” you are now part of the CPR team. This patient may only have a chance at survival if a leader takes charge.

11. Negotiation

In a perfect world, all clients would follow all recommended diagnostics and treatments without hesitation. No one wants to cut corners, but savvy negotiation skills make the difference between a patient receiving some care instead of no care.

12. Positive attitude

Our profession can be stressful and at times very sad. Having a negative attitude will make your life—and your coworkers’ lives—miserable. A positive attitude can turn the most stressful of situations survivable and possibly even enjoyable.

13. Problem solving

Creativity can save lives. So can you, if you are a problem solver. Blood analysis machines will fail, monitoring equipment will abruptly stop monitoring, shipments will be delayed, and medications will go on back order. Being able to look past the problem and focus on the solution is critical.

14. Project management

The entire staff needs to be involved to reach success. That said, individuals can carry out and complete projects to keep the practice growing.

15. Responsibility

Taking responsibility for your mistakes or accepting the part you may have played in a situation keeps you honest and humble, and forces you to grow up. Think of a time when you made a mistake and had to confess. It was uncomfortable, but you probably haven’t repeated that same mistake.

16. Self-motivation

Self-motivators see a task that needs doing—and they do it without being asked. Those are the people who are rarely found sitting down to chat about “Dancing with the Stars” during downtime.

17. Willingness to learn

A thirst for knowledge is a huge plus in any position. Since the medical field changes constantly, there is a never-ending need for improvement, learning new skills, and absorbing new information.

18. Time management

There never are enough hours in a day. Yet a select few with great time management skills can prioritize their time and accomplish more than anyone else. These individuals possess time-management skills that allow them to internally schedule their day in the most effective way.

19. Teamwork

The cliché “There is no ‘I’ in team” is ever present in the veterinary field. Providing good patient care is impossible without teamwork. Employees who are unable to work with the team slow productivity down, but team players can increase morale and directly impact work culture.

20. Work ethic

None of the previous skills matter unless you have a good work ethic. If you don’t show up, arrive on time, and give your best until you clock out, it doesn’t matter what skillset your possess. Those with a strong sense of ethics can thrive. 

Dr. Phil Zeltzman is a board-certified veterinary surgeon and serial entrepreneur. His traveling surgery practice takes him all over Eastern Pennsylvania and Western New Jersey. Visit his websites at DrPhilZeltzman.com and VeterinariansInParadise.com. AJ Debiasse, a technician in Stroudsburg, Pa., contributed to this article.

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