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Veterinary Team Body Language: Communicating Without Saying a Word

Dani McVety, DVM, Lap of Love Veterinary Hospice, Tampa, Florida

April 2018|Peer Reviewed|Web-Exclusive

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Veterinary Team Body Language: Communicating Without Saying a Word

I have always been drawn to the communication aspect of veterinary medicine. In veterinary school, I recognized that some veterinarians who were exceptionally intelligent simply could not connect well with clients. I also realized how vitally important it is to not only care for the patient but also to connect and communicate with the owner, who ultimately makes and pays for any decisions about his or her pet.

Communication appeal—the strategies used to get attention and persuade people (eg, credibility, emotion, logic)—is one of our most valuable assets as humans.1 Communication does not always mean talking; body language also sends messages. Reading body language is looking at nonverbal cues. It is necessary to first find the natural tendencies in a person’s physical behavior (ie, the baseline), then look for deviations from the baseline and ask powerful, open-ended questions to help find the root cause of any change. (See Jumping to Conclusions.)

Reading another person’s body language is not mind-reading; mind-reading is the ability to perceive another’s thoughts without normal means of communication.1 Following is a discussion of body language and the meaning of various postures that can help you communicate with team members and clients.

Space Invasion

One of the basic ways both humans and animals communicate with their bodies is their reaction when they believe their private space has been invaded. Taking up space can convey confidence and power; for example, humans present nonverbal “tells” by puffing their chest and standing taller (eg, when an attractive person walks by), placing their hands on their hips to express dominance, or purposefully standing while others are seated. Similarly, cobras flare their hoods to ward off a threat by appearing larger; bears stand on their back legs to appear taller. Instinctually, humans and animals perceive that whomever is entering their space and exhibiting a certain posture appears more confident than someone who is minimizing their posture. 

For example, a veterinarian may encourage a client to take a seat, while she intentionally chooses to stand while presenting her findings about the client’s pet, thus appearing much taller and more dominant compared with the client, who may then feel afraid to ask questions. 

The opposite is true, as well. Humans and animals tend to minimize their physical presence when they want to disappear (eg, a person keeps his or her eyes on the ground rather than look at someone speaking, a dog cowers in a corner or tucks its tail when scared).

Photos of Dani McVety, DVM, courtesy of Ross Taylor. Taken and shared with the subjects’ permission.

The Eyes Have It

During conversation, a person’s eyes naturally wander, but, interestingly, they wander to different places depending on whom the conversation is with. Generally, people’s eyes are fixed on the triangle between the eyebrows and the nose when they are talking in a business setting or to someone they have just met, but their eyes will wander down to the chin and lips when conversing with family, partners, and close friends. Most people’s eyes tend to settle between the eyebrows and the nose when they are speaking to their boss, team members, or clients. This may transition over time as close relationships are developed with long-term clients or between longtime team members. 

Eye contact time, which includes time listening as well as talking, is also an important indicator of a person’s confidence. During a conversation, the normal amount of eye contact is considered about 60% of the conversation time. More than that may be considered intimidating or pushy (eg, judges and car salesmen average more than 80% eye contact time, which may account for their pushy reputation).1 The extra eye contact time is not correlated with building rapport, however.


When breaking eye contact, move your eyes up instead of down because looking at the floor makes you appear submissive and lacking in confidence. Looking down can be appropriate (eg, showing empathy, making an apology), but in the practice setting, it will not help convince a client that his or her pet needs the recommended treatment.

A Wave of the Hand

Many people wring their hands or pick at their fingernails, both considered “pacifying” behavior that may indicate nervousness or discomfort. The reason why someone is nervous or uncomfortable may not be obvious, but once the observation is made, open-ended questions can follow. 

Adam Kendon, author of Gesture: Visible Action as Utterance,2 made these conclusions about hand  gestures: the open hand prone or palm down gestures denote that the person is being denied something, negated, interrupted, or stopped, either explicitly or by implication, whereas the open hand supine or palm up gestures are likely to be used when the speaker is offering, giving, or showing something, or requesting he or she be given something.


Always place your hands palms up when escorting a client to an examination room, offering to take his or her coat, or asking what else he or she needs.

Move Your Body

The direction of a person’s torso may be one of the most important indications of where that person wants or does not want to be. Dr. Albert Mehrabian, professor emeritus of psychology at University of California, Los Angeles, considers the “Belly Button Rule,” which was established in the 1930s, the most important indicator of a person’s interest and intent.3 For example, a veterinarian should always face a client who is speaking, even while examining the pet. This shows genuine interest in what the client is saying and acknowledges he is part of the conversation.


During an introduction, show genuine interest and engagement by facing your belly button toward the person you are speaking with. One exception: You may turn your shoulders slightly when a client is providing information that you are writing in a patient’s chart so long as your belly button remains mostly pointed toward the client.


Reading body language, both your own and that of others, takes practice and consistency and can be uncomfortable. But the improved communication, both inside and outside the practice, is highly rewarding. Observing the body language of a team member or client, understanding the context, and knowing how to follow up verbally, can help form an accurate view of a situation. That knowledge is the real magic in relationships!  

Philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti, an inspiration of the Nonviolent Communication movement, said it best: “The highest form of human intelligence is the ability to observe without evaluating.”

Jumping to Conclusions

You walk into the practice reception area and see 2 new clients, a man and a woman, seated, both with their arms crossed. He has both feet flat on the floor, and her legs are crossed at the knee. What might you assume?

  • The closed-off body postures mean they are upset.
  • The woman is more upset than the man because her legs are crossed as well.

This is probably not the case.

  • The crossed arms may be this man’s natural baseline.
  • The woman may simply be cold.

Jumping to conclusions quickly and immediately putting up your guard or responding with your own closed-off body language may start you off on a bad foot—no pun intended—by causing the new clients to act defensively. 

The best approach is to greet clients with a smile and ask open-ended questions (eg, What brings you in today?), to establish their true intentions and build rapport.

1 Know the difference between reading body language and mind-reading.

2 Understand your team members’ body language so you can gauge unusual behaviors, realize something is wrong, and offer to help.


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