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Health Care Management:
Students Learn about Communication from Unlikely Instructors

UMD student Marie Petrangelo grooms  horse  
UMD student Marie Petrangelo grooms a horse and watches its body language as part of a non-verbal communication workshop.  
UMD student Haley Robinson is majoring in biology.  

“In health care, we often don't communicate well because we speak different languages,” said Associate Professor Jill Klingner from the Labovitz School of Business and Economics’ Health Care Management program. “Providers have a different language than patients. Supervisors have a different language than workers. It’s complicated.”

In her May term Medical Sociology class, Jill strives to help students understand the complexities of communication. "What if the patient has difficulty speaking or is unable to speak?" Jill points out that a lot of communication is non-verbal. “People interpret a lot, facial expressions and body language, and our interpretations aren’t always accurate,” she said.  

In early June, Jill took eight students, April Daerda, Marina Falcon, Jessica Mendez Jeffers, Alex Klos, Abby Mickelson, Alaina Olson, Marie Petrangelo, and Haley Robinson, to the Hobby Horse Farm in Carlton to work with Cathy Buelow from Freedom Horse Coaching and some unusual teachers – horses. “The horses help us get in touch with the messages we are sending non-verbally,” Jill said.

Getting Past the Fear
Marie Petrangelo, a senior who will graduate in December with a double major in health care management and human resources management, wasn’t expecting a whole lot. “I was initially only interested in taking part in this workshop to expand my experience when it comes to my future career in health care. However, this has offered me so much more than a simple work experience, it has offered me valuable life experience as well,” Marie said.

Like all of us, Marie came with her own horse-preconceptions. “This was a bit scary for me, as I'd had poor experiences with horses in the past,” Marie confessed. Yet, she didn’t let that stop her. “I was really impressed how Marie stepped up,” Jill said.

After observing the horses and discussing what various behaviors might be communicating, the students took turns greeting the horses, grooming them and sharing, what Marie calls, “a heart-to-heart.” Although nervous, “I kept an open mind and embraced the opportunity for a new experience," Marie said. "The horse could clearly sense my fear but it felt like she was doing everything she could to reassure me. When I was grooming her, she remained very still, which was comforting. During our heart-to-heart, the horse actually wrapped its head around my shoulder and after that I felt perfectly comfortable and was no longer scared."

Marie gained insights about non-verbal communication. “The horses taught me not to assume. While I was grooming the horse, it dug its hoof into the dirt. I asked the instructor, Cathy, what this meant. Instead of answering my question, Cathy asked me what I thought it meant. I said that I thought the horse might be getting uncomfortable. Cathy said that maybe the horse was actually enjoying being groomed. In a situation where nonverbal communication is present, it's very important to not assume that a cue has a definite meaning; instead it could mean any number of things,” Marie said.

Learning By Doing
Abby Mickelson, a senior majoring in health care management and human resources management with a minor in psychology, who also took part in the workshop, has been around horses most of her life. “I grew up in 4H and have been around some of the show circuits,” she said.

Abby enjoyed working with the horses. One of the exercises the students did as a group was moving a horse from one end of the barn to the other, without touching the horse or talking to it. “Our team got together and we went over our game plan: who’s the leaders, who’s going to go where.” They successfully moved the horse.

Turning the horse around and getting back to where they started, however, wasn’t so easy. Abby thinks this was because the horse knew it wasn’t going to be touched or maneuvered in any way and wasn’t playing along. Jill has a different take on the situation.

“The team didn’t consult with each other and started doing the same thing that they had done previously. They were falling back on old skills that weren’t appropriate to the task,” Jill remembered. “When the instructor stopped the exercise, the students reorganized. They modified their behaviors and reassigned their responsibilities. Then, still without touching, still without talking, they successfully moved the horse. It was great experiential learning,” Jill said.

Applicable in the Real World
Both Marie and Abby believe the workshop gave them useful tools. “I truly feel like the experience has benefited me, not only in my future career in health care, but in my personal life as well. It has taught me to always keep an open mind and to remain honest in all forms of communication,” Marie said.

“I could transfer these skills to my professional life,” Abby said. “For me, body language was a huge take-away. You’re working with a 1,500-pound animal. You really have to focus on what their ears are doing, what their tails are doing. You have to pick up what they’re trying to tell you, even though they can’t speak. It could be that way working with someone who can’t verbally communicate.”

Jill took away her own lessons. “There are so many messages that we can send. You can force things or you can meet the person where they are.”

Abby Mickelson (near horse) along with (l-r) Alaina Olsen, Marina Falcon, April Daerda, Haley Robinson, and Alex Klos attempt to move a horse from one end of a barn to the other– without touching the horse or talking to it.

For more information about UMD's health care management major, visit the Labovitz School of Business and Economics website.

LSBE is accredited by the AACSB International(Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business); LSBE recently earned continuation of accreditation. Less than 5% of business schools worldwide have earned this prestigious distinction. In Northeastern Minnesota, LSBE is the only school to have attained AACSB accreditation. Its website is

Written by Kathleen McQuillan-Hofmann July 2015.

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