How to Communicate Empathy:
You care. In fact, just about every vet I know cares too much for their own good. You care until it hurts. You cry over every patient you lose, even when you know it was their time; you ruminate over every decision you make, wondering if it’s the right one; you worry about every pet that didn’t get the gold standard care you offered, wondering if they’ll be alright.
But sometimes all that internal agonizing can actually mask your true emotions. And clients, more than anything, want to know that you care. That may sound counterintuitive. Shouldn’t they want, more than anything, for you to be the smartest, the most even-handed, the most up to date in your medical knowledge? Shouldn’t they want the person who is objectively the best vet?
Maybe they should, but very few do. As the old saying goes—”People won’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” That’s why caring isn’t enough; you need to be able to communicate that care to your clients.
So stop overthinking everything. There will be plenty of time to worry. Make sure you take the time to gush over someone’s pet, to really listen to your client, and to make a connection.
How to Say ‘No’
As a student, you are taught to say ‘yes.’
In high school, you say ‘yes’ to every extracurricular so you can build up your resume to get into college. In college, you say ‘yes to every chance to work with animals so you can get enough veterinary experience to get into vet school. In vet school, you say ‘yes’ to every case you are handed, every late-night ER shift, every surgery you have the chance to scrub in on. You are taught that the only way to succeed, the only way to be the best, the only way to prove how good you are and how much you care, is to say ‘yes,’ ‘yes,’ ‘yes.’
But now you’ve made it out. And it isn’t about having the most experience anymore. It’s about how much you bring to that one patient in front of you. And if you’re working twelve-hour shifts, never taking a break, covering all your colleagues’ vacation days, and constantly checking in on your days off, then you’re going to be too exhausted and too burnt out to be fully present to the patients you do say ‘yes’ to seeing.
So when you find yourself struggling to say ‘no’ to that client who demands to be fit in, to that boss who asks if you can work an extra shift, to that client that wants the ear meds refilled without an exam, remember that saying ‘no’ to them, means saying ‘yes to the patient that will get better care at the ER. It means saying ‘yes’ to your support team that wants to leave on time too. It means saying ‘yes to the next client who needs you to be 100% for their pet.
How to Let Go
Being a vet is hard. And not just because of the mountains of information you need to know. Being a vet is emotionally hard.
You need to grieve for your lost patients. You need to deliver bad news to once happy families. You need to listen to heart-broken people lash out at you because they don’t know where else to direct their fear, guilt, and sadness.
That’s a tall emotional burden to carry. And it’s easy to let all that sadness, stress, and trauma stick. We’re hard-wired to remember the stuff that causes harm so that we can avoid it in the future. But you can’t avoid it when you’ve dedicated your life to it. That’s the path we chose so that we could have a career of meaning and purpose.
So how do you learn to let go of the situations that are beyond your control? How do you let go of that gnawing pit of guilt that the dog who died during surgery might have lived if someone else had been their surgeon? How do you let go of the harsh words of an angry owner who accused you of only caring about the money? How do you let go of the grief-stricken face of that sobbing, fully grown man as he holds his dying pet while you inject the euthanasia solution?
In some ways, you never do. But you learn to compartmentalize, to put it away in a box where you can take it out at the appropriate times. And you find a way to focus on the good; you make a bulletin board of all the thank you notes you receive; you start a gratitude journal, you end each day thinking of three good things that happened. You take a little piece of every case with you, and you move on.