In most veterinary practices, it's increasingly common to interact with clients who've been raised in different cultures and staff team members who may speak Spanish, Mandarin, Eastern European languages or Arabic as their primary language. And increasingly, your veterinary colleagues may have been educated and trained overseas as well. It was hard enough at one time for Yankees from New England to communicate with southerners from below the Mason Dixon line. Now the challenge is to communicate effectively and with sensitivity with people from other parts of the globe.
We have all been introduced to the concept of active listening and effective communication, both verbal and nonverbal. Numerous presentations, books and educational courses present the same basic message: Listen! You know—focus on the speaker. Ask open-ended questions. Avoid interrupting. Be nonjudgmental. Act interested. Make eye contact. Demonstrate openness and interest with your body language.
But interacting with people from other cultures requires an entirely new and expanded set of tools beyond talking more loudly and slowly and exaggerating our facial expressions. Americans frequently struggle with foreign cultures because they're—well, foreign! I do a lot of international travel and my wife and I have never—I repeat, never—had an unpleasant interaction anywhere we've traveled. We've always tried to incorporate the old saw "Seek first to understand, then to be understood." In other words, be open to differences and look for similarities. Treat other people with dignity and respect. The desire for these attitudes is universal.
Americans tend to be less effusive than those in Latino, Italian and Middle Eastern cultures, where hand gestures, facial expressions and tone of voice are a large part of many conversations. We need to work not to be distracted by this effusiveness or, worse, let it put us on edge.
On the other hand, people in Asian cultures do not gesture or speak loudly. They're less effusive in their communication style, but a gracious response doesn't always mean we're communicating effectively.
So what can you do to better communicate with your multicultural veterinary clients, team members and colleagues? The following 10 steps are adapted from an article in Business Life magazine by communications expert Sunita Sehmi.
1. Be empathetic. Put yourself in a nonnative English speaker's position. For example, imagine how difficult it must be for your veterinary team member to present continuing education information effectively or participate in team meetings. Or imagine the challenge your client has in conveying your message to her family! It's hard enough for us to be effective communicators in our own language. Now imagine conveying business or medical concepts in a foreign language you're just learning.
2. Be genuinely interested in the listener. Focus your attention on your audience and your message, not just your words. Make every effort to tailor your communication choices specifically to your listener.
3. Be patient. Respect and tolerance go a long way. For some people, English might be a third or fifth language. How many languages are you fluent in? Be sensitive to theo other person's discomfort.
4. Focus on similarities and collective experiences to build a common ground. Chances are you have struggled to understand another language. Let your communication partner know you understand that operating in a foreign language isn't easy.
5. Be straightforward and clear. Metaphors, colloquialisms and even humor can easily be lost or misinterpreted. Never use slang, jargon or abbreviations. They only impede understanding and dilute significance.
6. Be informed. Know the background of the members of your veterinary team and the cultures you serve among your clientele. Be aware of where they come from. Not all Latin or Asian or Middle Eastern cultures are alike. Attitudes toward superiors, methods for managing conflict and even basic communications styles vary greatly.
7. Mirror your listener. Adapt and match your communication style with your listeners. Effective cross-cultural communication relies greatly on rapport.
8. Remember that there may be multiple cultures at play. National, racial and corporate cultures all need to be considered.
9. Find and focus on commonalities. Do not emphasize differences. When you focus on common goals it becomes easier to reduce the potentially negative impact of differences.
10. Use lots of pauses, allowing for clarification and questions and answers. Don't rush. Remember, no one likes to look stupid, and people may need time to process what you say. Silence means you're listening. Always ask if there are questions!
The richness of other cultures has made our country great and can do the same for our veterinary businesses. Make sure your practice is open and welcoming to all people and potential clients.
Dr. Michael Paul, @mikepauldvm on Twitter, is a nationally known speaker and columnist and the principal of Magpie Veterinary Consulting. He lives in Anguilla in the British West Indies.