Emotional intelligence: making a difference to day one competences

Written by: Emily Bridges
Published on: 17 Aug 2020

Emotional intelligence

Image © dizain / Adobe Stock

Working with new graduates and being a newly accredited emotional intelligence (EI) practitioner, I was very pleased to see that EI has been added to the updated RCVS day one competences.

To understand why it has been included and the difference it could make, we need to look at the subject in a little more depth.

What is EI?

EI is often described as the missing link between personality and performance.

Personality + EI = performance

Many different tools can identify our personalities and better understand them. However, little exists that we can do to change personality – and this, on its own, can cause challenges when we have to deal with certain situations. This is where EI comes in – it can be used to manage our personality to be both personally and interpersonally effective.

What’s more, and what’s so great about EI, is that it is something you do, not something you are. You can learn, practise and improve your EI skills – which means you don’t have to see different traits as weaknesses, but as areas for improvement. This means a huge opportunity exists for anyone who takes the time to understand EI to develop himself or herself and increase his or her performance.

So, why is EI important for vets?

We, as vets, all have our own personalities and, as discussed, we can’t change this. Similarly, every single client who comes through our door has his or her own personality, which – especially if it contrasts our own – can be difficult to manage.

Being skilled in EI allows us to use our own individual resources to get the best outcome from all these different client interactions, as well as those with our team.

In a 2019 study1 from BEVA, the BSAVA and the RVC, when asked “What is the one single thing you dislike the most about being in the veterinary profession?”, both veterinary surgeons and nurses listed clients right at the top. Yet client interactions make up a massive part of every single day in clinic.

We need to find a way to emotionally deal with these interactions and make them less challenging to us.

But why is it needed on day one?

It’s great news that EI has been highlighted by the RCVS as not just being an essential skill for vets, but one they should already have developed by day one.

We can teach EI at any stage and many more resources are available now, but these skills take time to practise – so the earlier in our career we start the process, the better. We should be using students’ time at university to begin honing these skills so, by the time they reach their first daunting day in practice, they have an extra toolbox to help them cope.

Let’s look at some examples of the areas of EI mentioned in the day one competences to highlight their importance in the early stages of a vet’s career.

Arguably one of the more testing periods any vet will encounter is his or her transition from university to working life. I’m obviously passionate about how we support vets through this, but no matter what we do, it remains a huge change.

Arriving at this transition period with a range of robust coping mechanisms allows graduates to use the challenges they encounter not to “break” them, but rather to “make” them. If resilient, they will bounce back from these challenges and even be stronger vets of the future for having faced them.
While numerous reasons will always exist for why people leave the profession, with increased resilience, “not being able to cope” wouldn’t be one of them and this can only be a positive change.

The competences refer to being “self-aware”; of one’s personal limits as well as professional ones. EI is all about being aware of our feelings, then thinking about these to guide our behaviour.

As we all know, this can often become automatic – we get stressed and then we become more erratic, rushed or angry. If we have learned to stop and accurately identify our feelings, the outcome can be greatly improved.

Let’s use an example. “I’m stressed” can become “actually my stress is a mix of worry because I don’t know if I’m good enough to perform that operation later and embarrassment; that last client knew I didn’t know what was wrong with her dog”.

Now you’ve unpacked these feelings, you can act on them. Accept that it is okay to feel embarrassed, but reflect on how the consult went – you may have handled the conversation well and should congratulate yourself on this.

The client still agreed to do bloods, so you’re still progressing forward with your diagnosis. As for the operation, you had better go and discuss the plan with a senior vet, check he or she thinks you are capable and make sure he or she is around to help if needed.

You can now effectively tackle the rest of your day, aware of your feelings, but managing them.

A big difference often exists between the cases presented in textbooks at university and those we see in our early days in practice.

Anything from owners’ cost concerns to religious beliefs (or even global pandemics) can throw huge curveballs at us, and having the skill to take this in our stride and respond appropriately, without losing our way, is a huge advantage.

Key to the whole principal of EI is the ability to reflect on what we have done, and identify what worked, what didn’t and how we can improve. This is true for both clinical and non-clinical skills.

If we reflect on the interactions we have, how they went, whether we achieved our desired outcome and if not, why not, then we give ourselves much more room to learn. I’m sure everyone would agree all new graduates will make mistakes – the problem comes if we don’t learn from them.

So, what can we do in the profession?

The vet schools will now all be looking at how they update their curriculums to stay in line with the new competences and it will be interesting to see how they approach the topic.

In practice, we can encourage everyone from colleagues to students to practise EI; get into the habit of asking one another how they feel. If someone answers “fine”, ask him or her to break that down and be more specific so he or she gets better at identifying feelings and becomes more self-aware.

Any practices that have EMS students can consider how they can use these learning opportunities to develop students’ EI.

For example, if a student witnesses you breaking some bad news, suggest he or she reflects on how you may have felt going into that consult. How did you come across to the client – would he or she have been aware how you felt? How effective was your conversation – did you end with the desired outcome for everyone and if so, how did you do this?

In this way, students are learning to recognise some of the feelings they may have to deal with when they are that veterinary surgeon breaking the news.

Even better, ask the student to share his or her reflections; you may learn from them, too.

For those who are interested in the topic, Daniel Goleman has written a series of books on EI and numerous courses are available. Many online tests also exist that you can take to measure your EI and identify areas for improvement.

Hopefully recognition in the day one competences will stimulate the rest of the profession to consider their own EI, and what we can do collectively to educate ourselves and others.

1. BEVA, BSAVA and RVC (2019). Recruitment and retention in the veterinary profession, www.beva.org.uk/retention-survey