In our readings and at our conferences, we veterinarians are frequently exhorted to be better communicators, more caring and more engaged with our clients and staff. The outcome, we are told, is that we will find greater success in a shifting landscape that seems increasingly difficult to navigate.
Great! Who doesn't want to be more successful? But what does it mean to be more engaged, and is "more engaged" even what we should strive for? In fact, we all show up in our interactions at a certain level of engagement; that provides an excellent framework for understanding how we can shift from just getting by, which is inherently dissatisfying, to getting what we want and feeling more fulfilled.
Levels of engagement in veterinary practice
There are several levels of engagement (see "Levels of engagement in veterinary practice,") and the degree of meaningful interaction and connection with others varies widely among them. To illustrate these levels from a veterinary perspective, I've adapted concepts from the book Energy Leadership: Transforming Your Workplace and Your Life from the Core (Wiley and Sons, 2008). Here they are:
Levels 1 and 2. At the lowest levels of engagement, we're in a stress response. We feel overwhelmed and unappreciated, or our frustration may boil over into an angry outburst.
One hallmark of the lower levels of engagement—and a physiologic outcome of a stress response—is that we're restricted to a narrow view of a situation, which inevitably reduces the choices available to us. That's why people dwelling at these lowest levels feel stuck and are unable to envision how their situation might improve. Think of the "fight or flight" response, in which the chemicals released alter brain function so that areas dedicated to complex thinking are inhibited to allow for greater clarity in dealing with the "emergency" at hand. That's great when we encounter a true life-or-death situation, but those same chemicals are released when we're triggered by less crucial events—such as a waiting room filled with backed-up appointments.
Level 3. As we move up in our level of engagement, we take responsibility, we use information to deal with situations and there is greater cooperation. This level is fundamentally intellectual, and it's where we use our medical training to solve and manage cases. But we may also experience a sense of dissatisfaction reflecting a disconnect between our actions and our values. At this level we can get by, which is fine for a period of time, but it's not sustainable. Relying on this level of engagement to fuel our success can result in burnout.
Level 4. This level is the "sweet spot" for veterinary professionals. It's characterized by concern, compassion and providing service to others. It's more emotional than intellectual, and it's where we really connect with our clients because our true caring nature is on display. But it can also be our Achilles' heel, because along with the desire to be of service comes a need to feel appreciated. When clients bring up information they read on the Internet, decline a service or question our fees, that can trigger an immediate descent into the lower levels of engagement ("I'm not good enough" or "You're not good enough").
From what I have observed, and speaking from my own experience, veterinarians often feel more comfortable and less vulnerable at level three, where our medical knowledge, problem-solving skills and management abilities can get us through the day, day after day. This is our comfort zone, but it falls short of our sweet spot (level four and above). We may feel more secure, but we miss out on our potential—the ability to connect with ourselves and others, to unleash our creative genius, to gain access to our intuition, and to experience a level of trust and confidence that allows us to traverse even the most turbulent waters. That may involve repairing a torn cruciate ligament, singing in the choir or simply enjoying a quiet moment with a companion.
Level 5. At the fifth level of engagement, we move beyond the notion that "you need my help" to "we can accomplish much together." People at this level tend to recognize others' talents and they want to make the most of those talents to create mutual success. In veterinary practices this shows up as the well-trained and empowered veterinary team, where everyone views him- or herself as a "piece of the puzzle" (to borrow a phrase used by Julie Clarke-Blount, DVM, in her Kingsland, Ga., practice). The client is also seen as an important and welcome part of a partnership focused on the pet's well-being and a strong, long-term relationship between the owner and her animal companion.
Levels 6 and 7. At the highest levels we are "in the zone," experiencing a tremendous sense of ease and effortlessness. It is here that we purposefully create the life we want for ourselves and bring others along for the ride. We approach life with a sense of total passion and fearlessness because failure does not demean who we are but simply provides a lesson that we probably needed and from which we will ultimately benefit.
Sounds great, doesn't it? Sure, but how do we get there? The great news is that we are already "there" in many moments throughout the day. Our energy is continually shifting among these levels of engagement based on how we perceive our inner and outer environments. The key is to be aware of these levels, which provides us with the opportunity to choose where we want to be rather than being at the mercy of external factors. This is, in a sense, the ultimate form of freedom and control.
Of course, life events frequently intervene to thwart our best intentions, and we find ourselves reverting to old, familiar patterns. However, by understanding that at each level of engagement we are functioning in a realm characterized by a distinct set of thoughts we have created, and over which we have control, we can develop a degree of awareness that puts us in greater command of our lives. The payoff is a sustainable sense that we are living the life we're meant to live.
Dr. Mike Murray is a veterinarian and certified life and leadership coach. He is technical marketing director for Merial and has previously worked in both private and university veterinary practice.