Essential Skills for Mentors in Equine Practice 

Being a strong mentor is an art rather than a science—Dr. Kate Boatright explains how to develop and enhance your veterinary mentorship skills.
mentorship in equine practice.
The goal of mentorship in equine practice is to make new grads and young practitioners the best doctors they can be. | Adobe Stock

Equine veterinarians mentoring new grads and young practitioners must develop a variety of skills to be effective advisors, teachers, and role models. During a presentation at the 2024 Midwest Veterinary Conference, Kate Boatright, VMD, associate at Penn Ohio Veterinary Services and founder of KMB Veterinary Media LLC, described skills that support a successful mentoring relationship in a clinical setting. Here are seven of the most important. 

Communication and Listening Skills 

Communication is essential to having a good practice. “You can be the most intelligent doctor and have the best and most up-to-date medical information, but if you have terrible bedside manner, you’re not going to be a good doctor from the client’s perspective,” said Boatright.  

The most successful type of communication in a veterinary setting, she said, is relationship-based communication, “where we’re building a relationship and a bond with our clients.” 

She then listed several core communication skills mentors should help mentees develop:  

  • Asking open-ended questions beginning with words like “what” or “why.” In practice, these types of questions are great ways to collect information, help the veterinarian connect with the client, and elicit more of a response than yes or no, said Boatright. She also uses these types of questions when asking mentees about their cases, saying, for example, “What questions do you have?” instead of “Do you have any questions?”  
  • Active listening, which involves showing your engagement with nonverbal cues, such as nodding and eye contact, as well as phrases like “go on” or “I see.” 
  • Reflective listening, which you can use to confirm your understanding. Examples include paraphrasing the history a client just gave or echoing the last thing they said.  
  • Sign-posting, which is a communication style that gives conversations structure and provides transitions between topics. For example, said Boatright, if you find a lot of abnormalities on a patient’s bloodwork, set expectations for the client by telling them you’re going to discuss those findings one at a time and then talk about what they mean altogether.  
  • Chunking and checking. Deliver information in small chunks. “Clients do better with small pieces of information than a five-minute monologue of results where you lose them at Step 1,” she explained. “If we stop and check for understanding, we’ll prevent that information overload.” This is an important skill for new grads to develop, she added, because they have a lot of information in their heads. 
  • Empathy, which is the capacity to understand or feel what another person is experiencing from their point of view. Veterinarians should have empathy when communicating with clients as well as when delivering feedback to mentees. 

When developing and addressing mentee communication skills, Boatright recommended: 

  • Direct evaluation, such as watching them talk with a client. 
  • Mock scenarios, which provide training for not only the mentee but also the entire team. 
  • Setting goals (e.g., being more efficient, building specific skills, handling certain situations) around client communication. 
  • Debriefing after emotional or difficult conversations with clients. 

Additional ways Boatright said she supports mentee communication skills include suggesting phrases to use in conversations, reviewing key points when discussing cases, and creating templates for email communications. 

Teaching Clinical Cases 

When working with mentees on cases, encourage self-directed learning. “I like to try to guide my mentees to the answer and not just tell them,” said Boatright. If a mentee asks you what to do, for instance, help them get to the answer using open-ended questions. (The exception, she noted, is during emergencies, when you don’t have time to teach.) 

She also urged mentors to teach early-career veterinarians about the spectrum of care approach—the idea that there are a range of acceptable options for any given patient.  

“On one end is the gold standard—which is what most students are learning at the teaching hospital—and on the other end of the spectrum are options like palliative care, symptomatic treatment, and economic euthanasia,” she explained, which can weigh heavily on new grads and lead to consequences like compassion fatigue and burnout. “That’s why we want to talk to our new grads about the spectrum of care approach and the reality of practice.” 

Help mentees prepare for cases when there are financial limitations and ethical dilemmas by sharing your own experiences and how you handled them. Encourage them to focus on what they can learn and diagnose without running lots of expensive tests. “When discussing treatments, encourage mentees to think about cost, likelihood of owner and patient compliance, and frequency of follow-up,” Boatright added. 

Goal-Setting 

Having goals improves mental health and job satisfaction. Veterinary professionals with goals are less likely to get burned out and feel happier and more valued than those without goals, Boatright said. 

“Goals help us focus our training,” she explained. “They provide ways to measure mentee success, motivate individuals, and create accountability. As a mentor, I like to set goals and ask mentees to keep me accountable as well.” 

She recommended using the SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, time-bound) goals format, whether setting goals for clinical skills, soft skills, or personal development. 

Personal Wellness and Boundaries 

Model good boundaries and wellness for your mentees, said Boatright, which might include: 

  • Setting firm boundaries (e.g., how late you work, when clients can contact you). 
  • Discussing life outside the clinic. 
  • Sharing personal experiences and struggles. 
  • Demonstrating stress management techniques. 
  • Expressing gratitude. 

Be aware of situations that might be problematic, she said, such as difficult conversations with clients, euthanasia, ethical dilemmas, mistakes, and complications. Monitor mentees for signs of burnout and mental distress, and make sure you know what mental health resources are available so you can direct them to those. 

Boatright listed symptoms of burnout to watch for in mentees, especially if they’re new behaviors: 

  • Overly critical of themselves or those around them. 
  • Frequently sick. 
  • Chronic exhaustion. 
  • Overly sensitive to small frustrations. 
  • Disengagement. 
  • Putting minimal effort into work. 
  • Depression, anxiety, panic attacks. 
  • Increased absenteeism. 
  • Isolation. 
  • Irritability.  

“If we’re seeing these things, we need to have a conversation,” she said. “Say, ‘Hey, I’ve noticed lately you seem like you want to spend more time alone, is something going on that you want to talk about? I’m concerned about you.’” 

Delivering Feedback 

Delivering effective, timely, and specific feedback is an important skill for anyone in a coaching or leadership position, said Boatright. Tips for effective feedback delivery include: 

  • Prepare by determining the mentee’s preferred time and place for feedback and whether anyone else should be present. 
  • Ask for the mentee’s perspectives and opinions, using open-ended questions. 
  • Focus on the behavior or event, not the individual. 
  • Have specific examples, and be objective and factual. 
  • Discuss the impact on clients, patients, and team. 
  • Deliver negative feedback in small chunks, then layer in positive feedback. 
  • Pay attention to nonverbal signs that they’re overwhelmed or losing focus, and consider taking a break. 
  • Give the mentee time to digest and an opportunity to respond or ask clarifying questions. Schedule a “circle back” meeting for follow-up discussion and making a plan for how to move forward. 

Conflict Resolution 

“There are lots of places we can run into conflict in veterinary practice, with clients, colleagues, support staff, mentors, and management,” said Boatright. Equip mentees with conflict resolution skills by: 

  • Creating an environment of psychological safety. 
  • Encouraging open, in-person discussion between those having conflict. 
  • Acting as mediator when needed. 
  • Addressing conflict right away. 
  • Finding common ground. 

Patience 

Lastly, have patience when mentoring early-career veterinarians. “Every mentee is going to go at a different pace and require different levels of support,” said Boatright.  

“Remember, we’re not dictating how these doctors are practicing—we can make suggestions on case management or communication skills, but they might not always take our advice. That can be difficult, but let them develop into their own doctors.  

“That’s what we’re trying to do with mentoring,” she added. “Make them the best possible doctors they can be.” 

Brought to you by CareCredit.

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