Empathy: the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.
In modern life, empathy has become something of a buzzword – a concept readily thrown around in business circles, job interviews, or passing personal advice. It’d be good if more people were empathetic, wouldn’t it? It’d be good if people took the time to understand one another, to listen, and to place themselves in unfamiliar shoes. It’d be good if you were more empathetic. Wouldn’t it?
Yes, it’d be good. And many times, that’s where the conversation stops. Because empathy, like many things, is easier said than done.
As a veterinarian, you can’t afford to let the conversation end there.
Your job requires practical empathy, not just lip service. It requires stepping into the stories of your clients and patients each day. Practicing empathy is an integral part of providing good veterinary care.
Let’s take a look at why that’s the case – and see how, as a veterinarian, you can become better at practical empathy.
Empathy Matters in Client Communication
Communication is perhaps the most obvious area that empathy impacts in the life of a veterinarian.
To be able to communicate at all, a basic level of understanding is necessary. That’s why communicating with someone who speaks another language is so difficult – there is no basic shared understanding of meaning.
Ease of communication increases as understanding increases (interestingly, the inverse is true, too). That’s why communication is easiest with your best friends and family members – because you have the greatest understanding of their meaning and context.
Again, empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. That understanding enhances communication.
So, what does that look like practically for veterinarians?
Well, any given day, you witness a variety of creatures and characters passing through your office. Some clients may have been coming to you for years; some may have never been to see you before. Every one requires your empathy.
Is an older woman actively angered by the treatment options you’re suggesting for her boxer mix? Her dog may be her best companion in the absence of her husband.
Is a young couple at odds with each other over how to treat their older cat? Perhaps the wife brought the pet into the relationship, and is more emotionally invested in its wellbeing.
Is a fifty-something man being belligerent at the prospect of euthanizing his rabbit? It may have been his daughter’s best friend when she was a child.
Understanding each story will undoubtedly shape your communication with each client.
An understanding of others’ feelings makes communication easier. So, practically, as a veterinarian, make an effort to understand your clients and patients more fully by asking questions and showing patience. Ask about the relationships your clients have with their pets; ask about the history behind each patient.
Show patience when they don’t answer (don’t push them to if they’d rather not), and do your best to understand their stories when they do. And make notes as you learn. Share your knowledge with your staff, so that they’ll have access to the full context for each client, too.
You’ll be able to communicate with people more easily, because you’ll have a greater understanding of where they’re coming from.
Empathy Matters in Treatment
Believe it or not, empathy also matters for veterinarians as they’re considering treatment options.
No, empathy doesn’t impact the medical reality of a situation. If a dog has osteosarcoma, or if a cat has diabetes, empathy will not alter the symptoms and science inherent to the condition.
But, empathy may impact your understanding of how a disease should be treated.
For instance, if you understand the value that an older woman places on her dog, you may recommend a more aggressive treatment plan. If you know that a young couple is divided over the treatment of a pet, you may be able to offer an option that balances budget and health needs. If you understand what a rabbit means to a middle-aged man, you may be able to offer ways to ease its pain for a final goodbye.
Empathy doesn’t change the facts of a medical condition. But it may change how we react to those facts. Ultimately, empathy will enable you to offer the best treatment option possible for each situation.
Empathy Matters in Our Stories as Veterinarians
Admittedly, this sounds a bit touchy-feely. Okay, so empathy matters in stories. But what does that mean, exactly?
Stories are an important framework for understanding – and we’ve already mentioned how important understanding is in facilitating communication, among other things
Empathy is a tool to enter into the stories of others. And that’s essential for the mental well-being of veterinarians.
Veterinary work is uniquely stressful; it’s well noted that veterinarians are more likely to experience depression and other forms of mental struggles than people in other professions. Empathy provides us with a framework to understand and help people and animals; a framework to both feel the stories of others and better serve their needs, and to acknowledge that their stories are not our own.
For veterinarians dealing with difficult emotions every day, that distinction is an important one to make for mental wellbeing. Empathy helps.
The practical takeaway?
Focus on the ways that your work as a veterinarian matters – through a journal, if possible, or even in conversations with a professional therapist. Acknowledge the people and animals that you have influenced through your treatment. And acknowledge that, while your own story is impacted by your work, it is distinct from it, too.
You Can Become a Better Veterinarian
VPR Cloud is the only veterinary reference built by veterinarians, for veterinarians. It’s a dependable, easy-to-use drug reference that makes providing high-quality care easier. You’ll be able to confidently prescribe medication accurately, and you’ll save time that you would have spent manually referencing a drug index.
At the end of the day, that means that you’ll be able to do your job as a veterinarian better than before.
And, it means you’ll have more time and energy to dedicate to practical empathy.