Measuring nonverbal communication between veterinarians and farmers

Some of you may have seen this topic discussed in the American Dairy Science Association’s Dairy Science Weekly. Others of you may have already read the relevant article in the Journal of Dairy Science (J. Dairy Sci. 106:5452–5467). Regardless, I think it’s worth a mention due to its importance to our profession.

Per the JDS article, becoming more effective communicators with the ability to translate clinical knowledge into something that is meaningful to the farmer is inherent to the process of knowledge exchange and plays a role in farmer satisfaction and preparedness to adopt advice. In other words, effective communication skills are essential for veterinarians to realize their advisory role by exploring and understanding a farmer’s worldview. In this study, the authors considered which aspects of nonverbal communication (NVC) and nonverbal behaviors (NVB) should be measured, and how, to provide an essential first step toward understanding the significance of NVC for veterinarians working in dairy practice. They chose 12 NVC attributes with established links to positive patient and client outcomes from medical and social science studies, including body orientation, interpersonal distance, head position, and body lean, which have been shown to influence empathy, rapport, and trust: key components of relationship centered communication. Each consultation was segmented into intervals defined by the main activity and location on farm and primarily focused on the: introduction, fertility examination, and discussion.

The consultations (n ≥ 1 per veterinarian) were conducted by 6 veterinarians: 3 female and 3 male. Most farmers were male (n = 10) and 2 farmers were female; 1 consultation took place with a male farmer during the introduction and fertility examination intervals, and then a female farmer completed the consultation in the discussion interval. The median duration of consultations was 70 min and ranged from 32 to 154 min.

Based on the authors’ observations, the introduction interval represents a typical two-participant meeting: neither party is distracted by the presence of cattle or the need to use equipment. Data suggest that this period might offer the veterinarian a chance to foster a sense of rapport through engaging in positive behaviors such as eye contact and open body posture and to consider how the farmer’s behaviors might help them initiate conversation regarding possible issues and areas of concern that might be useful to address during their time on-farm. During the fertility examination, data suggest that opportunities to engage in open body position and eye contact can be restricted by the focus on performing transrectal ultrasonography. In fact, when using goggles the veterinarian appeared to spend less time with their head and body positioned toward the farmer, which could be perceived as a barrier to interaction. With the screen strapped to the body, the authors observed that veterinarians adapted their body orientation and head position toward the farmer, which has the potential to encourage more conversation and positive affect.

The discussion interval was deemed to present an opportunity for veterinarians to engage in positive NVB and to observe farmer behaviors. Discussions often occurred in a separate location to the fertility examination, with veterinarians and farmers mainly engaged in conversation while seated, which established specific distances and angles that were maintained for the duration of the interval (i.e., interpersonal distance of between 1 and 4 arm lengths and angled or directly facing each other). By recognizing closed postures and negative body lean, particularly during discussions involving potentially emotive topics that might involve change, veterinarians might choose to explore possible reasons for these behaviors by asking whether the farmer has any questions or concerns, allowing the farmer an opportunity to express them verbally.

Overall, this study concluded that since routine consultations provide veterinarians with a regular opportunity to discuss herd health planning with their farmers, learning more about NVC and NVB could help veterinarians to recognize and respond to farmers’ emotional responses and subsequently lead to more effective conversations.