Communication 101

Mary Margaret with her goat
Mary Margaret, goat whisperer (OK, it’s not really related to the story, but it’s cute…)

I opened the door and she was right in my face, spewing endless fears about her cat dying in the back room. She was a constant stream of worry and concern, pulling at her hair and filling my ears with the sounds of escalating panic. “Can I see her?” “Is she going to die?” “I don’t know what to do; she’s never been this bad before!”


It was like walking into a room with the living embodiment of pure anxiety.

We sat down and I calmly talked her off the cliff long enough to have a serious conversation about the care her cat was about to receive. Yeah, not so much. As we sat, she panicked externally while I panicked internally and tried to remember how to stave off an anxiety attack long enough to get a form signed and get out of there.

This was communication training for veterinary students. It is one of the most terrifying things we face in veterinary school, and one of the best opportunities we have to get ready for life as a veterinarian.

It starts off innocently enough in first year, with actors playing clients, and students working through a simple history-taking exercise, just trying to get the information needed to assess the patient. As we moved up in the curriculum, the scenarios get more challenging, with our third year putting us in front of enraged clients, anxious clients, clients whose pets have horrible diseases, clients who are determined to criticize everything the veterinarian says or does.

After we painfully work through each scenario, we have the opportunity to discuss the scenes with our classmates and professors, as well as the actor.

We receive feedback on our active-listening skills, how empathetic we were, whether we achieved our goal for the scenario, and how the client felt and what they heard. Our classmates offer constructive criticism, and we talk through other ways it could have played out.

Watching my classmates work through their scenarios, and completing my own, has given me more confidence going into our fourth year, where we are expected to be mini-doctors and handle all those tough talks.

Any panicky clients coming through the front door? I’ve got this.