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Life as a Veterinarian: Attending the FRANK Communication Workshop

On December 7 and 8, 2019, Dr. Denzine participated in the Frank™ 1.0 Communication Workshop held at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. That workshop was the first of three in a continuing education series offered every year by Colorado State University's College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences.

Tell us a little bit about the workshop. How did you hear about it?

FRANK is an intensive communication course for veterinary professionals, mostly veterinarians but also practice managers and members of the management team, veterinary technicians, and client service representatives. CSU has sponsored the course for 15 years. Usually it's held at the campus in Fort Collins. I heard about it at a conference a couple of years ago and have wanted to participate in it ever since, but getting to Colorado was too difficult. When it popped up in Wisconsin, I jumped at the opportunity.

What is the focus of the workshop?

The focus is on building client relationships with open-ended questions. As part of a small team, I got to practice communication skills in simulated client conversations with a trained actor and the help of a coach. We were able to spend most of the time actually practicing skills because they assigned quizzes and readings beforehand.

That sounds fun! Can you set the scene for us?

It was held at the medical school and we got to use the examining room. There was enough space for the training coach, the actor, and our five-person team to work through the cases. They also set up cameras so that we’ll be able to review recordings of our cases later. On Saturday morning we reviewed skills with group examples and talked about different communication styles. In the afternoon we worked on cases, and then the coach asked what we did and didn't want to work on. All the cases on Sunday were emotionally charged and difficult to handle, and they were all perfectly matched to each participant's interests. They seemed like they had been written expressly for us—very well selected.

What were the cases like?

The actor would present a tense situation and express strong emotions: anger, frustration, sadness, grief. For instance, the practice case was about a client concerned with limited time for an examination. The trainer and the actor demonstrated how a veterinarian's body language and phrasing can affect the client's response, either intensifying their frustration or soothing it. One of the most important skills the cases helped us to develop is empathy with the client's perspective. Why are they frustrated? What legitimate concerns are making them feel the way they do? It's important to listen to the client well enough to understand their story and how they got to their current emotional state.

That sounds useful. What skills did you practice for addressing client's problems?

In addition to listening for the story behind the story, one of the most important things you can do is to mirror the client's body language. It's good to convey openness, to lean in when the client leans in and to give them space when they feel uncomfortable. Another important thing is to act from the assumption that you are there to offer something to the client and not that the client is there to demand something of you. Instead of asking, "Is there anything else I can do to help you?" I would ask, "What else can I do to help you?" It's warmer and more proactive.

That's an interesting difference. In the second question, you expect to do something else for the client. In the first question, you seem to prefer not to do anything else.

Right, that's one way of thinking about closed questions versus open-ended questions. I went into the workshop thinking I was already asking open-ended questions, but I realized that the words I was using at the beginning of questions were limiting the range of responses. Before, I might have asked more yes-or-no questions, whereas now I try to ask questions that require elaboration. Miscommunication and misunderstandings become much more likely when you don’t encourage clients to give you all the information you might need and vice versa.

Have you noticed any practical effects from your new approach?

Yes, I've already seen a change in the information I get from clients. Just the other day, I was speaking to a client about their pet's flea and tick preventative. The patient had been receiving a product we don't recommend. I asked open-ended questions that led the client to reveal why they had started using that product: their dog had had problems years before, and they found that this product helped. I then explained that the product we prefer works the same way and doesn't come with the same risks. If I hadn't asked the right questions, I might never have heard the client's story and they might have decided to continue using the riskier product.

Have you applied what you learned anywhere else?

I used some of the techniques in a meeting just this morning! These communication techniques are widely applicable. You can use them not only with clients, but also with coworkers, friends, and family. There was a fun case in which a head technician for a specialty hospital had to address an issue raised by an upset employee, another technician. These are complex situations, and it helps to practice handling them in a controlled setting. We were able to pause and rewind the interactions in order to try a different approach and practice a different technique. The actors have been working with the program for more than a decade, so they're really good. At the end of each case, you receive feedback from the coach, your team members, and the actor. The worst thing that can happen is that you try again. Much easier than trying new techniques on actual clients.

Do you plan on attending the second workshop?

Definitely. Now I know that it's totally worth it, I'm going to make the trip to Colorado. I wish I'd done it sooner. The second workshop addresses challenges with medical recommendations and decision-making with clients, getting buy-in from them for treatment plans. That has a clear clinic-floor benefit: you save time in the long run and get more accurate information to provide better patient care. I also plan on attending the third workshop, which teaches participants how to teach skills effectively. I want to bring these skills back to my hospital team more formally.

Thank you for sharing your experience with us, Dr. Denzine.

GoodVets is happy to be able to offer our veterinarians a continuing education stipend that enables them to take advantage of career-enhancing opportunities they might not otherwise be able to pursue.