A few weeks ago, I was scrolling through social media when I noticed I had been “tagged” in a family member’s post. When I went to see what it was, I found myself reading a heartbreaking story written by an individual whose pet had tragically died. This individual’s detailed account centered on one thing: the pharmaceutical they believed killed their pet.
My family member had tagged me, then sent a private message. I could almost hear the panic in her voice as she reached out to me, a veterinary professional, asking “Is this true?!? I give this to my dog!”
This isn’t the first time a viral story or pet health trend has been brought to me for a second opinion. Veterinary professionals are often faced with questions from clients who have heard or read something that runs contrary to our medical advice. These conversations can be opportunities to strengthen the client-veterinarian relationship and build a bond of trust, empathy and caring.
Addicted to Anecdotes
It can be hard to understand why some clients trust a random story on the internet or the experience of an acquaintance more than what we perceive as sound medical science. We may even take it personally, feeling like the client values “them” over “us.” However, the truth is more complicated…
Several studies suggest the human brain has evolved to remember and assign value to personal experiences and anecdotes over facts and statistics. This effect becomes exaggerated in stressful or emotionally charged situations. A study published by the journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes found that anecdotes hold the most sway and facts the least, where medical and personally relevant issues are concerned. This may be due to the ease with which the average human brain remembers stories, as opposed to statistics and data. It may also be a reaction to the information overload of our modern society.
There is something about a personal experience we are innately drawn to. A separate study on the power of anecdotes explains, “Statistics can be doubted and countered with other statistics, but first-hand experiences have an aura of unimpeachability.”1
Interestingly, people may be blind to their own bias in favor of anecdotes. The aforementioned study found that the majority of participants self-reported preference for facts and statistics when establishing believability. However, when put in face-to-face interactions with strangers holding opposing viewpoints, these same study participants rated those sharing subjective experiences as more trustworthy than those presenting objective information. This was especially true when they viewed people sharing what the study refers to as “harm-based” experiences, where someone witnessed or experienced injury or suffering.
So, how does this come together to impact client-veterinarian interactions when discussing contentious information?
If a client expresses concern based on a harm-based anecdote—whether from a stranger on the internet, acquaintance or family member—it is going to be very difficult to shift that person’s perception by sharing facts about safety and efficacy of the product or procedure they are afraid of. What should veterinary professionals do when faced with a cautious client?
Listen and Acknowledge
The first thing we should do is listen to the client’s concerns. At a minimum, we should engage in active listening when clients are speaking. Active listening entails filtering out distractions, not interrupting and responding to the speaker at appropriate times.
In situations that have the potential for disagreement, we should practice deep listening. Deep listening differentiates itself through a commitment to understanding the speaker’s perspective. This is the type of listening most associated with trust-building and conflict resolution. There are entire courses teaching deep listening, but some of the foundational elements include:
- Listening without judgment.
- Being self-aware and quieting your internal monologue.
- Paying attention to the speaker’s non-verbal communication.
- Make understanding (not responding) the intention of your listening.
Listening in this way can not only help you understand the client’s concern, but it can also help calm any defensiveness veterinary professionals may feel in a situation where our medical expertise is being questioned. Deep listening can help us hear what the client is really saying rather than internalizing their distress as a judgment of our practice. It can help us see the source of their anxiety not as lack of trust, but as deep love and responsibility for a cherished family member.
It is also important to acknowledge the emotions evoked by an anecdote a client is sharing—even a second-hand one. If a client says, “I read that someone’s dog died from that medication,” we can’t scientifically verify that information, but we can and should acknowledge that loss as a tragedy. Truth matters less in this situation than empathy. Rather than focusing on facts that we’re not able to establish, we can best move forward by addressing the real and immediate feelings present in the room.
Have a Conversation
Once you have listened to the client’s concerns, you can begin a conversation. Ask what the client would like you to do for them and their pet moving forward. Their response can guide your approach. If they say they’d like you to dispel their fear, then that opens the door for you to share your knowledge and experiences regarding the pharmaceutical or procedure being discussed.
Conversely, they may say they never want to expose their pet to the product/procedure in question. Knowing this allows you to focus on effective and safe alternatives, if they exist. Let the client guide the direction in which you move forward. This is putting your deep listening into practice. The client will see you value what they shared, which builds trust and establishes you as teammates working in the best interest of their pet.
The Right Resources
If the client is interested, offer suggestions of where to find quality veterinary material on the internet. This gives them autonomy and a way to navigate the abundance of information available online. Left to their own devices, most people are prone to a phenomenon called “confirmation bias.” This means people will tend to ignore evidence against their preconceived notions and specifically look for, consume and remember evidence supporting them. Social media capitalizes on confirmation bias with its algorithmic content selection, making unbiased information even more difficult to access.
Steer clients who want accurate, verified veterinary information toward reputable websites such as those hosted by accredited veterinary organizations, veterinary teaching academies or veterinary-sponsored, independent institutions. Encourage them to double-check any information they encounter on blogs, group chat sites or social media with one of the recommended resources, or by speaking with a qualified veterinary staff member at your practice. Make sure clients know you are available and willing to discuss any questions or concerns they have about their pet or veterinary care in general.
As veterinary professionals, we know we are not only caring for animals. In order to do our jobs well, we must also help pet owners make important decisions regarding their pets. The best outcomes arise from a strong sense of trust and teamwork with the pet at the center. Seeing hard conversations as opportunities rather than oppositions helps set the stage for a professional relationship that benefits all involved +
- Kubin, E., Puryear, C., Schein, C., & Gray, K. (2021, January 5). Personal experiences bridge moral and political divides better than facts. PNAS. https://www.pnas.org/doi/full/10.1073/pnas.2008389118
- 4 Types of Listening: Exploring How to Be a Better Listener. (2021, June 4). Maryville Online. https://online.maryville.edu/blog/types-of-listening/
- Kasriel, B. E. (2020, March 4). Deep listening: Finding common ground with opponents. BBC News. https://www.bbc.com/news/health-51705369
- Noor, I. (2020, June 10). How Confirmation Bias Works. Simply Psychology. https://www.simplypsychology.org/confirmation-bias.html
- Walton, A. G. (2020, April 8). In Stressful Times, People Listen More To Anecdotes Than To Facts, Study Finds. Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/alicegwalton/2020/04/06/in-stressful-times-people-listen-less-to-facts-more-to-anecdotes/?sh=667368ab6a43
- Weir, M., & Buzhardt, L. (2022). Finding Reliable Internet Sources for Pet Care Information. VCA Animal Hospitals. https://vcahospitals.com/know-your-pet/finding-reliable-internet-sources-for-pet-care-information