Worldwide medical and scientific journal for animal health professionals

Issue number 1 Communication

Why invest in communication (part 4)

Published 06/02/2020

Written by Miguel Ángel Díaz , Iván López Vásquez , Cindy Adams and Antje Blättner

Also available in Français , Deutsch , Italiano , Português and Español

Let’s quickly remind ourselves of the science behind communication and look at what neuroscience has to say on the subject.

Why invest in communication (part 4)

Key Points

Communication with clients must properly address the emotional aspects. Rationality can only work when our emotional side is taken care of and both are in line with each other.


Neuroscience and communication

Have you ever stopped to think about how we make decisions?

Did you know that we can scan our environment up to five times per second looking for signals that answer the question “Is this safe or dangerous?”.

Evolution has transformed us into walking scanners, alert to any threat that hinders us from transmitting our DNA to future generations and to anything that could help us.

We have inherited our brain from those who survived, a brain focused on survival. When we perceive something that we don’t like, our fight or flight signals light up. For instance, a scowl is enough for us to not want to work with someone, and a smile is enough to feel affinity towards someone.

The chemistry of communication

When we feel comfortable and secure with another person our brain is releasing neurotransmitters called dopamine, oxytocin and serotonin, among other chemicals 1.

  1. Oxytocin produces the feeling of feeling safe with others,
  2. Dopamine is the joy of “Hurrah, I did it!”,
  3. Serotonin produces the feeling of being respected.

How does our brain work? 

The reptilian brain directly translates sensations into behavior but we can train our neocortex to take control of the situation.
Figure 1. The reptilian brain directly translates sensations into behavior but we can train our neocortex to take control of the situation. © Manuel Fontègne

Dopamine, oxytocin and serotonin are controlled by something that all mammals have, the Limbic System (LS). It includes structures that are essential for communicating with our environment: the hypothalamus (specialized in coordinating our basic impulses and motivation), the hippocampus (specialized in memory) and the amygdala (specialized in emotional learning and responding quickly to stimuli) (Figure 1). The LS is surrounded by a large cerebral cortex (C) which houses logical and rational thought.

Our LS automatically responds to certain stimuli (a smile, a look of disapproval, a bad smell, a dog showing its fangs, a cat with its ears back and hair on end, etc.). There is an area of the cerebral cortex called the prefrontal cortex (PFC) which processes the feelings generated from a stimulus and decides whether to move closer or to flee. To bring our communication with our clients to another level, we must understand that the LS and the PFC work together. Although the PFC can generate alternatives to an immediate response from the LS, it is much less able to do so than we think 1. In other words, we are much more prisoners of our own instinctive impulses than we believe ourselves to be 1.

 
A happy brain releases dopamine, oxytocin and serotonin.
Figure 2. A happy brain releases dopamine, oxytocin and serotonin. © Manuel Fontègne

The key to improving communication with our clients consists not only in appealing to their rational state, but also in appealing to their emotions. If we can get their brains to receive doses of dopamine, oxytocin and serotonin during our interactions with them, our communication will get off on the right foot (Figure 2).

How can we make sure we get off on the right foot?

The release of oxytocin is stimulated if we make them feel wanted, accepted and trusted.

Examples:

  • A firm handshake.
  • A light touch on the shoulder to congratulate them on something.
  • Touching their pet and making eye contact when we talk to them.
  • When we honor our commitments, when we make good on our word, when there is consistency between what we say and what we do.

This need to connect applies to clients, vet practitioners and rest of staff. As a rule of thumb treat everyone as you would like to be treated.

This need to feel wanted, accepted and trusted applies for all of us, not only for our clients.

We stimulate the release of dopamine when our clients feel rewarded or prized as a result of their relationship with us.

For instance:

  • when we congratulate them for their dog’s earache getting better,
  • for the healthy growth of their puppy,
  • for how they are handling their cat better.

When a client is aware of having made progress, they will be happy.

We as vet practitioners also need our dopamine shots and get them, for example, from:

  • setting goals towards a desired outcome,
  • working with a clear goal in mind,
  • meeting a deadline or achieving a goal.

When we make a client feel special, we are stimulating the release of serotonin. It happens the same when our clients or our teammates make us feel unique. Our primitive brain is always looking to compare itself with others to see who is in charge and what our status is. It is very tempting to think that this does not affect us, but think about how you feel when somebody very important greets you or when someone ignores you. We feel bad when we are made to see that we are not as special as we thought.

Do you want to make your clients’ or co-workers LS release serotonin?

  • Treat them very respectfully.
  • Let them know how honored you are that they have chosen your clinic.
  • Praise your employees when they deserve it and do it in public.

Without emotions, there can be no decisions

Communication with our clients must properly address the emotional aspects. Our rationality can only work when our emotional side is taken care of and both are in line with each other 2. Understanding, doting on and satisfying the emotions of our clients must form the basis of our communication with them.

Neuroscience applied to the veterinary clinic

Below are two examples of how being careful with emotions can establish a good base for communication. 

A low-profile experience…

Client “Good morning” looking at the counter where there is a receptionist on the phone who doesn’t answer and seems to not be paying attention.
Receptionist
… after several minutes on the phone, hangs up. She seems stressed.
“Do you have an appointment?”
Client “Yes, of course. It’s the third time I’ve been in with Toby.”
Receptionist “Please take a seat, the doctor will see you as soon as he's done with his current appointment.”
Client
“Ok, thank you.”
She takes a seat, visibly in a much worse mood than when she came in.
Veterinarian “Next?!” the vet practitioner asks loudly without seeming sorry about having made his client wait for 25 minutes.
Client Goes toward the office, but her emotional state is very reactive.

A better experience…

Client Good morning” looking at the counter where there is a receptionist on the phone who immediately smiles at her, making a gesture of apology as if to say she will be right with her.
Receptionist
“Oh, Mrs. Sánchez. Good morning. Sorry, I was answering a call just when you came in. I'm happy to see you. How is Toby doing?”
She had taken the time to look at the appointments and knows the names of clients and patients.
Client “Not great, he’s having a hard time getting over this earache. Today is our third visit.”
Receptionist “Well, I hope he gets better soon. Please take a seat. The doctor will be happy to know that you’re here, making a gesture to include Toby and his owner. I see that Toby is panting, do you want me to bring him some water?”
Client “Oh, no, that’s not necessary, thank you very much. We were walking quickly on the way here and he’s a bit tired. We’re happy to wait here.”
Veterinarian “I'm happy to see you Mrs. Sanchez. I'm so sorry to have made you wait. I hope it wasn’t a huge bother. Toby, are you ready to go in? He asks with a smile while carefully petting Toby.”
Client “Toby is never ready to go in, even though you’re always so good with him. She says this with a laugh while following the veterinarian into the office…”

(We have put gestures and comments that trigger Mrs. Sanchez’s LS to release oxytocin, dopamine and serotonin in red)

References

  1. Graziano L. Habits of a happy brain. 2016 Adams media.

  2. Haidt J. The Happiness Hypothesis, 2006 Basic Books.

Miguel Ángel Díaz

Miguel Ángel Díaz

Miguel received a degree in Veterinary Science in 1990. After working at several clinics he opened his own clinic in 1992 Read more

Iván López Vásquez

Iván López Vásquez

Iván comes from a family of veterinarians; his father and older brother share the same passion. He obtained his degree from the Universidad de Concepción Read more

Cindy Adams

Cindy Adams

Cindy Adams is Professor in the Department of Veterinary Clinical and Diagnostic Sciences at the University of Calgary, Veterinary Medicine, Read more

Antje Blättner

Antje Blättner

Dr. Blättner studied in Berlin and Munich and after graduating in 1988 she set up and ran her own small animal practice. Read more

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