Episode 81

All the Feels: Using Empathy to Connect with Clients

Emotional Intelligence: The Secret of Success See All Episodes »

Veterinarians, technicians, and other animal care professionals are widely known as highly empathic. Being able to understand the feelings of others helps us establish stronger connections with both colleagues and clients, which in turn increases compliance and improves medical outcomes. But empathy is a double-edged sword. How do you tap into that empathy, day after day, without getting an emotional overload? And what if you simply can’t empathize, either because you can’t relate to the situation or you disagree with it entirely?

Today we’re welcoming back Amy VanDeWater of Glue Veterinary Coaching, who’s joining us to continue our emotional intelligence series. In this episode, we’re picking up with EQ skill number three: Social awareness. Listen in as Amy explains what social awareness is, describes why it’s important in a veterinary setting, and offers advice for managing your own emotions that result from being aware of everyone else’s.

Episode Guest


Amy VanDeWater

With 35+ years of experience in the field, Amy is the founder of Glue Veterinary Coaching, where she brings a real-world approach to helping veterinary teams and managers maximize their impact and fulfillment. Learn More »


Krysten Bennett: Well, thanks for taking the time out to talk to us. I’m sure you’ve got a lot going on.

Amy VanDeWater: I’m always happy to be able to pop on here and share some of the message. I actually had a practice out on Cape Cod that reached out, and they had shared the podcast with the team during a team meeting. And so now I’m getting to go and work with them one on one. And, and so I love that. I love any way to kind of spread it further, you know?

KB: Yeah, I like it. People are listening! 

AV: Exactly.

Mia Cunningham: Well, Amy, it’s been a while since our last episode. Can you just kind of give us a quick refresher over the first two EQ skills?

AV: Yeah. So the way that I like to share emotional intelligence and EQ is using sort of a model that has four main components to it. And so the first two that we’ve talked about so far are self-awareness, which in the Glue Veterinary Coaching world is listening for the voices in your head. And then self-management is all about, how do we manage those voices in a way that allows us to be more effective and also save a whole lot of energy that we might tend to waste a little bit on when the villain characters go wild in our heads.

KB: Wow. That was that was impressively brief.

AV: But I can certainly add on to it. I got plenty, Krysten!

KB: That was perfect. So now that we’ve made it to the penultimate EQ skill of social awareness, we’re going to shift gears from looking inward at ourselves to looking outward at others. What is social awareness, and how do the previous skills help you develop it?

AV: Social awareness is all about taking what we’ve already accomplished with self-awareness and self-management. Now we’ve got a good handle on what’s going on inside our head and our hearts. So instead of just listening nonstop to all the voices, you know, complaining or feeling like a victim or all the other things that they’ll do for us, we’re able to turn our attention now to the person that we’re interacting with. With social awareness, our goal is to be able to understand the thoughts and feelings of others. 

And so, you know, I refer to EQ as sort of a superpower set of skills, a life superpower—not just for work, but for our personal lives as well. And you can imagine then, when we think about social awareness in that context, how powerful it is for us, if we’re able to better understand what is happening inside someone else’s head and heart when they’re saying all the things that they’re saying and they’re doing all the things that they’re doing. So that’s why it’s sort of the next step. 

You asked, how do these first skills help us build social awareness? I think it’s not so much about building it. It’s about making it possible. So with self awareness and self-management, we’re able to make it more possible for us to really tap in and to understand the thoughts and feelings of others. Without those first two skills, we just can’t maximize our social awareness. We’ve got so much going on in our own heads we can’t really focus on what’s going on for someone else.

MC: So in essence, it sounds like we’re talking about empathy, which is something that I think a lot of veterinary professionals, as a group, tend to excel at. So do you find that this natural tendency makes them particularly strong in regards to social awareness?

AV: I would say that empathy is definitely a part of social awareness. When I am sharing information about EQ with people in the veterinary field, there’s so many components to social awareness that we can talk about, but really it comes down to listening and empathy. As you said, empathy is the big winner here on this one.

Now, from my experience working in the veterinary field, what I have observed is a whole heck of a lot of empathy for animals, and then we maybe start to struggle just a little bit. Sometimes when we are turning our attention to the people, it is much harder in a lot of cases, for those of us who are so deeply passionate about animals, to be able to offer that same level of empathy and compassion to the people that we’re charged with serving. Because we can’t get to the animals unless we can really understand what’s going on for the people. That’s our first and foremost goal. The rest falls into place when we’re able to use that social awareness to connect with the people.

KB: Aside from what you’ve said, being a good listener and having high empathy, what does social awareness look like? What qualities does someone with high social awareness have?

AV: So for sure, everyone has met someone who has high social awareness. They may not know that they have high social awareness, but it’s those people that you can connect with really easily. Like, you feel like right away they get you, they get where you’re coming from. You know, they’re vibing, they got your vibe, they can sort of match you in energy and in conversation, even tone, body language. That’s all a part of being socially aware and being able to understand the thoughts and feelings of others. It comes out in all of these different ways. 

So one of the things that I like to point out whenever I begin talking about social awareness is that it is baked into us as human beings as a part of survival, right? Anybody listening to this has probably had some sort of situation: I think about it in this way, because this has happened to me: So I’m sitting at a restaurant. In my mind, it’s a Panera. I don’t know why; I get no sponsorship bucks for that. It’s just a Panera. And I’m sitting there, and there’s a man in a booth across the way, and every time I look up, I notice that he’s kind of got his eyes on me. Like, not directly, but I can just feel it. And then, you know, I get up to leave and I am very aware of if that guy gets up or not. Like, is that guy who’s been staring at me this whole time, is he getting up too? As I walk out to my car, I’m kind of taking a few little looks over my shoulder to see, is he following me? 

That is social awareness, right? It’s that feeling. It’s recognizing something in someone else and then being able to apply what you recognize in a way that’s going to help us manage that relationship or in this case, not relationship. And that leads into the next skill that we’ll be talking about, which is relationship management. 

We all have that built into us. What we’re trying to do with EQ is sort of raise the bar on that social awareness. Let’s take it to the place where, when a client is freaking out about the costs of something, that we’re able to really feel and understand: Is this about cost, or is this because they’re really scared of what the diagnosis is and what procedure this animal needs next? Are they telling us that vets are all a scam job and we triple the prices on everything because they really feel that way? Or is it because they’re terrified because they can’t afford the thing that we’re telling them their animal needs? 

So when we apply it into the day-to-day world of veterinary medicine, you can see how social awareness is what allows us to meet people where they are in the moment. And then we know, sort of intuitively, where we need to lead them in order to create whatever the result is, whatever we need for us to have together in that moment, at that time. 

It also applies to partners, spouses, kids. As a parent, social awareness is incredibly powerful. I’m sure a lot of moms and dads out there can relate: When my kid gets in the car after school, I can look in my kid’s eyes and I know a little something went awry today, and there’s something that we might need to talk about. That’s social awareness. 

So what we want to do in the veterinary field is raise the bar on that. By doing that, we are better able to provide best care. We have to be able to connect with the people in order to do that.

KB: I’m going to veer off already, four questions in. But that story that you told about the man in the Panera, that feeling like somebody is watching you—I think it’s called gaze detection, which is so instinctual. Is that kind of like the lizard brain form of social awareness?

AV: Yeah, it is. We are wired specifically to detect threat. It’s all about survival. That’s buried deep in our amygdala, in our brain, that we’re looking for threats in everything around us all the time, right? Just survival threats. It’s the exact same thing, but now we’re just taking it up to that next level.

That gaze detection might apply to someone that you want to start a conversation with, and you’re just getting the vibe that they want to talk, right? Or just getting the vibe that they’re feeling stressed today. That’s all social awareness. So now we’re just trying to leverage that and sort of raise that instinct into a place that’s going to allow us to be really effective in our lives.

MC: What are some common scenarios where having strong social awareness might benefit a veterinarian, technician, or staff member?

AV: So throughout every role in a veterinary hospital, there are opportunities throughout the day to apply social awareness. So let’s say you work up front, you’re on the front line as I like to think of them, and a technician comes from the back and gets extremely snippy, snappy with you. Very, like, “You should do this, and I don’t know why you schedule it this way.” 

So first of all, we start with self-awareness. We’re recognizing that, when someone talks to us this way, especially at work, we’re going to get defensive. Maybe get a little bit of Marge, going off and saying, “How dare they treat me that way?” Or it could be Vicki the victim, or could be Wendy worrying that “I’m failing all the time and they know it.” So we recognize all these voices, and that’s the self-awareness. And then with self-management, we’re saying, “You know what? Whatever someone else says or does to me, I choose how much I’m going to invest back into that.” 

And then with social awareness, we’re able to take it to the next level and say, “Based on how she just spoke with me, there’s a pretty good chance that things are going off the rails a bit in the back, because I can feel that her stress is extremely high.” 

So instead of laying it back out there and throwing it right back at them, I’m just going to answer the question very calmly. My blood pressure is not going to go up. It’s not going to derail my experience in this moment. And we’re able to start with social awareness,  just by interacting with that technician in this way, actually helping them manage their energy, helping them manage their vibe, because the brain is naturally geared to mirror others.

So any time someone’s throwing big energy at us that we don’t want or we think is misplaced, with social awareness, we can understand and empathize where this person may be coming from. We can be very selective and very intentional in how we respond in a way that’s going to help this whole scenario move forward in a really positive way versus a negative one.

MC: Well, I think we all know someone with low social awareness, who may be completely oblivious to everyone and everything around them. So how do you suggest handling people like that, both within ourselves and within the context of a situation?

AV: No matter who who we are, we have interacted with people that have low social awareness, which also probably means they don’t have great self-awareness or self-management either. They’re just kind of not getting it; they can’t read the room. And so these interactions can feel awkward or overwhelming or a whole variety of descriptive words like that. Our goal when we’re interacting with someone who’s maybe not so high in that social awareness level, that’s where we have to listen harder, right? Because they’re not giving off the cues that we typically expect from others that have higher social awareness. So we really listen with the intent to understand, right? Ask questions, get curious, and be able to empathize. 

I do a lot of professional coaching one on one and work with people who socially just aren’t able to kind of create that that really collaborative vibe with others. It’s just not built into them. And so when we’re interacting with someone, we just have to be able to step into that space with them, and keep our energy authentic, to be able to empathize with the fact that, you know, probably a lot of times they know that they’re not vibing with people the way others are and have empathy for that and help them out. Help make that engagement, that interaction easier for everyone.

And so I think that’s a way that we can apply our own self-awareness and self-management and social awareness to really help others feel more comfortable in any given moment. You can see how that applies to a client, right? So if you’re interacting with a client and they are freaked out. You know, maybe their dogs are barking, they’ve got three kids with them and they’re all coloring on the floor, and while one dog’s up on the table, another dog is peeing in the corner. And that person is, like, vibrating with stress. With social awareness, we recognize that, and we recognize they’re not hearing a word we’re saying right now. So we need to change this environment or help them sort of rise above this chaos in the way we interact with them—before we start trying to teach them something, before we start asking them to make decisions about care for their pet. Because they’re not hearing or processing any of it. So that’s the power in social awareness when it comes to sort of client interactions.

KB: I wanted to ask you about hearing versus listening. It sounds really basic, but I think a lot of people, particularly ones that are low in social awareness, might think that they’re listening, but they’re not actually listening. Can you kind of delineate those two for us?

AV: Yeah, so we’re going to try something, and I don’t know how this is going to work. To people listening, Krysten and Mia have no idea what’s about to happen. We’re going to play a little game, okay? I am going to make a random statement about whatever pops into my head. Mia, your job is to respond to that statement using the last letter of the last word of what I just said. That is how your statement needs to start, and it has to make sense in context. Okay, So, Mia, we’ll just try it with you and see what happens. 

So I don’t know how the heck this Canadian wildfire smoke is hitting Ohio.

MC: Oh, my. But it sure is funky and aggravating my allergies.

AV: Okay, perfect. Krysten?

KB: So, yeah, I totally feel the same way. We were actually just talking about how my eyes feel so sore because of the air quality.

AV: And then I would have to go with an E statement, and we would go around. So the reason I’m having you do this right now is because that required true listening. That was not just hearing what I said or what Mia said. You had to truly listen, and you had to listen until the very last syllable of the last word came out of her mouth before you could even begin to come up with a response.

That is true listening, and that is what makes it so challenging. Because if we are not self-aware, we’re not aware the voice is going on and on in our heads and we’re not managing them. There is no way that we can truly listen and then be able to respond in a way that shows empathy and understanding. You see how that works?

KB: That’s brilliant. 

MC: Can I send you my son? 

KB: And my husband? Sorry, honey.

AV: I do have people ask if they can bring their partners, their spouses, to the next meeting! But do you see how that how that works? That is so challenging, because for the most part, we are all already formulating our response while the person’s talking right? They haven’t even finished their thought.

We can’t be socially aware if we’re approaching listening that way, because people are telling us everything we need to know. Sometimes it’s between the lines. We have to be able to listen with the intent to understand, not to respond. And that is the game changer. When we can do that, we’re able to notice what they’re feeling, and we’re able to notice the words that they’re choosing and how they’re sort of serving it up, that tone and that vibe and the volume and all the things.

And that is how we’re able to find ourselves to a way where we can provide empathy. And when we provide empathy, they feel heard, they feel understood. And now we’re in a place that we can work together collaboratively in this situation to help them provide the best care possible for their pets.

MC: These are just good life lessons.

KB: Yeah, that’s such a great exercise. It’s so simple.

AV: It’s so simple, and yet it’s so hard, because you feel so on the spot. But all you’re doing is listening. That’s all you’re actually doing. It’s crazy.

MC: And if we’re being honest with ourselves, like it allows you the time to slow down.

AV: For sure. And you know, when we slow down, the people that are part of this interaction, they naturally will tend to slow down with us. Maybe not immediately, especially if they’re not tapped into social awareness at the moment. But it sort of helps modulate that whole entire conversation to a place where we can be most effective, both at listening and offering empathy, and then also at the next skill, which is relationship management.

KB: This conversation about empathy kind of makes me think about compassion fatigue. That’s in the context of animals, of course, but I think you can also feel that same fatigue in human interactions as well. So, you know, when you when you see a colleague in distress, we as highly empathic individuals can literally feel their pain, which in turn might affect our ability to help them because we’re overwhelmed with their emotions. Do you have any strategies for dealing with this “empathy fatigue” in the moment, so that we can respond in a positive way?

AV: So I think the first thing that we might want to do is really define what we’re talking about when we’re talking about empathy, because there’s a ton of different ways that we could sort of package it. And the way that I feel is most impactful and that resonates the best is by thinking about it as tapping into the feeling behind the experience, right? You know, we talk about stepping into someone else’s shoes, right? Well, that’s seeing what they’re seeing. That’s sort of viewing the world from their perspective. 

With empathy, what we’re really wanting to do is tap into what they’re feeling in that moment. And it because that’s what we’re trying to do, we can be empathetic with any kind of person, any kind of animal, in any kind of interaction. We are able to tap into empathy, if our goal is tapping into the feeling behind the experience. 

I’ll expand on that with a little example, I’ve got two boys, one of them, the little red headed leprechaun, is highly empathetic. He was born that way. Whatever age he was growing up, he could have been five years old, and I could be saying all these words that are just pretty much gobbledygook to him. He doesn’t know what I’m talking about. He doesn’t know why I would be so excited about some random story at work, but he’s able to instantly tap into the feeling that I’m putting out there—that I’m excited and fulfilled and satisfied. He can tap into an experience that he has had that felt just like that, right? So maybe he taps into scoring the winning goal in a soccer game, when he was reacting exactly the same way. So he can fully, in that moment, empathize with me because he doesn’t need to understand anything about it. He just needs to understand what I’m feeling and recognize when he has felt that himself. 

When we’re looking at it that way, we can empathize with people with radically different lifestyles, with radically different belief systems, even with radically different values. We are able to tap into empathy by tapping into the feelings that they are having as they’re expressing themselves or living their life or doing whatever it is that they’re doing. It’s really a much more heart-based way of looking at empathy. 

And so back to your initial question about how this impacts people in the veterinary field when it comes to things like compassion fatigue: You know, I think of empathy can be one of our greatest superpowers. Being able to empathize with someone, even someone that we strongly disagree with, just plain feels better. Instead of feeling like we’re butting heads with people, we’re able to sort of stand more side by side with them and say in your head, “I don’t agree with a single thing that you’re saying. That is the craziest thing I’ve ever heard. I don’t know how you can possibly feel that way, but what I can tell for sure is that you feel just as strongly as I do, that your perspective is valid, and so I can connect with that feeling. I know exactly how you feel, because I feel the same way. It’s just about something completely different.” 

And so when we think about being able to tap into empathy with the most difficult clients, with the most difficult coworkers, empathy actually makes our job easier. We don’t sit and hang out with Marge all day, talking about how this person doesn’t deserve to have an animal in their life and all the things that, you know, anybody listening to this podcast can say that they think when they’re dealing with difficult clients. Instead, we’re able to spin it around and say, “I think I understand why they’re feeling this way. What can I do with that understanding to make this better for both of us?” So it can be a superpower, but it can also be your ultimate kryptonite. 

If I go back to the example of my leprechaun, right, he can feel these big feelings with people and he can do it pretty much instantly. But those big feelings also include big sadness, big letdown, big fear, insecurity, right? He can feel all that so easily, and we’ve had to really practice a lot. I have had to really help him understand how to contain that, that when he feels that big feeling along with someone else, how can we be able to be in that moment and give empathy in that moment, but then be able to sort of wrap it up in a box, set it on a shelf, and be able to then move on intact. That’s self-management.

And that’s where I think in the veterinary field, that skill of being able to sort of rein back in and be able to compartmentalize, knowing that the only way that this is sustainable is if I can have control of where I’m investing that energy, that’s the motivation, right? We have to be able to contain it. So whether you’re talking about burnout or compassion fatigue or just feeling incredibly drained, that all takes us back to self-awareness and self-management. That is how we contain that empathy. We give it freely, but then we’re able to package it up, package that experience up and set it to the side so we can go on fully in our own worlds as well.

MC: I’m so happy you touched on that because, you know, just learning more about empathy over the last few years, I’ve really understood the benefit of creating those boundaries for self-care purposes. Because it’s so easy to, whether it be good energy or negative energy, we tend to absorb those feelings of other people to our own detriment.

AV: Absolutely. Do you see then, how this self-awareness and self-management leads us to that ability to give empathy freely, without it eating our soul? First we have to be able to be self-aware and self-manage. 

Probably a lot of your listeners are also on social media. And if you pop into any of the veterinary-focused support groups, it’s it’s meant for sharing among veterinary team members, managers, whatever—what you will see, especially within the team groups, is an unbelievable level of exhaustion and burnout due to other people’s behavior.

And so recognizing that that ability to be self-aware and to self-manage, that is what we need before we can really start jumping in there fully with empathy, because we have to be able to contain it. We have to be able to contain that. As an example, interacting with someone where there may be some negative energy, you know, the “mean client” saga out there takes people into a place where they’re not they’re not actively being self-aware and actively self-managing.

So their energy is getting just eaten alive by that rude person’s choice of words. And then because of that, they’re not able to empathize, because they’re so wrapped up into this, getting sucked into that energy that they can’t take that step back and say to themselves, “Mrs. Jones is being really entitled right now about how her pet needs to be seen before these other people, even though she was 20 minutes late. And here’s the thing. I don’t know what’s going on with her, but I have felt that stress before. So something is happening that is leading her to be this demanding and this rude in claiming that she should be seen right this second. And that’s okay for her. She is struggling right now. I have struggled, too. But what I’m not going to do is invest my energy into that.”

MC: Amy, you just spoke to my whole soul! Because I feel like there is this association with empaths just kind of go along to get along—don’t make a mess, don’t rock the boat. And I’m going to venture to guess that a lot of empaths I think are associated with being people pleasers as well, and I think it’s hard to distinguish what that boundary looks like. How do you establish that?

AV: Well, I think that, along with a lot of people in the veterinary field being empaths, there also are a lot of Type A’s out there. You know, very nurturing and very caring when it comes to animals. But we also all of us have some pretty strong feelings about some things. When I do empathy workshops with teams, I challenge them to write down scenarios where they find it impossible to offer empathy to someone. And so the scenarios will come up, like when they see an animal that’s being neglected or they have someone call them something nasty and claim that we’re all getting rich off of them. You know, just statements that create this really visceral response. Any time someone says, “You’re in it for the money,” for a lot of people, that is like the ultimate insult. My ability to empathize with you just completely disappeared, and let me get Marge so I can list the reasons why you are so wrong right now. 

So when we’re talking about finding empathy with people who we find very challenging, the key is, understanding and owning the fact that empathizing has nothing whatsoever to do with agreement. Empathy is just saying, “I can understand how you are feeling right now. I can feel this with you.” 

So let’s say we have a client who is a cat hoarder, and they come in with animals that are in significant pain, discomfort, horrible health. It’s very difficult in that moment, while you’re standing before that person who’s bringing you this very poorly cared for animal to say, “You know what, I’m going to go ahead and empathize with how hard things are for you.” That can be really difficult, right? Because we’re feeling that animal. Our empathy is entirely with that animal. 

So what we need to be able to do in that moment is say to ourselves, “I don’t understand how someone can make the choices that have brought them to this place. I do understand that this can be a medical condition. I can also understand that this person is dealing with a lot of shame right now, having to come in, present themselves and this pet that they were brave enough to actually make that appointment and come in, knowing how they’re going to be judged. I can empathize with that feeling of shame or embarrassment. I felt that before. I’ve felt that fear and insecurity of being judged. I know how that feels. And what I can really empathize with is the way that client got here in the first place, it’s because of an overwhelming love of cats. I get that 100%. I will admit to having one too many animals way too many times in my lifetime.”

So we can, even in that really challenging situation, we’ll get someone in with our full heart, empathize. And when you realize the power in that, that if you’re able to offer empathy to that person in this moment, you may be the only one who has offered them empathy in decades. We don’t know their story, but we know that this person is really struggling, and they don’t feel judged by you. They don’t feel like you’re going to treat them poorly. They feel an alliance with you, that we together are going to do the best that we can to help them take care of these cats that they love so much. 

That does not mean that we’re endorsing this person’s behavior. Not at all. Empathy doesn’t ever have to be about us agreeing with someone else’s choices. It in no way indicates that we are endorsing their behavior or supporting them to continue making the choices that they’re making. All we’re doing is showing them that we understand how they’ve arrived here, to whatever level of awareness that we have, and that we are here for them in this moment. We’re tapping into that feeling they’re experiencing, and we can share this together, whether or not we agree with any of their choices.

KB: That’s kind of like a brain explosion moment, like thinking that you can empathize with someone without actually agreeing with them. Not only is that so powerful, but I think it’s also kind of empowering. You know, you don’t have to agree with someone in order to empathize with them. That just opens so many doors.

AV: Exactly! And when I said at the beginning, the empowerment of empathy is also that it makes things easier for us, right? It can make things harder if we don’t contain it appropriately, but it does make things easier for us, because in that moment, instead of sitting in this intense level of judgment—which costs us an enormous amount of energy—we’re sitting in this place that is much more peaceful. It’s much more understanding, it’s much more compassionate, and it actually saves energy when we can approach life that way. When we can interact with that rude client and it never for one minute increases our blood pressure, for even a second. Because we know that that person treats everyone this way, and that person probably doesn’t have a lot real good friends. This is how they roll; this is their M.O. And that is such a hard way to live. And it’s such a different experience.

MC: It’s nice to have a process to think about the next time I’m confronted with something that makes me uncomfortable or if someone’s being rude. I love the idea of not getting my dander up, because, like, I’m not the one that’s coming with a raw negative energy.

AV: We don’t we don’t have enough extra energy for that. I don’t care what field you work in, but especially in veterinary medicine, we pour out a ton of energy doing this important work. We cannot afford to be wasting it on things like not being able to find empathy or not being able to contain the voices in our heads. It’s so wasteful, and we don’t have to do it. It’s a choice.

MC: Absolutely. Thank you for that, Amy.