Are You Speaking Your Patients’ Language?
By Gregory L. Psaltis, DDS
As dentists, we are trained to treat teeth. And we do it well. Being the
technophiles that we are, it is an enormous sense of accomplishment to provide
the highest quality of dental treatment that we possibly can. Who among us
doesn’t have some statement like that in our Mission Statement or our Office
Philosophy? We have learned that our technical excellence generates the income
that drives our practice and creates the ability to maintain our professional
standing. Or is it? Is it possible that we sometimes miss the boat and focus
too greatly on the “teeth” and not on their owners? Communication with patients
may actually be the key to patient satisfaction and, therefore, retention.
The curricula of dental schools rarely includes this skill and, as a result,
some dentists may never appreciate the impact that their ability to relate
to others may have on the success of their practices. In my office, I always
say that we treat the teeth, but care for the patients. In support of this
non-technical philosophy, we learn simple but effective skills to enhance
our communications with our patients. They afford us the opportunity to touch
our clients in ways other than with our gloves or handpieces and they appreciate
There are three specific areas in which a more profound understanding of
your patients will bring you into closer touch with them emotionally and
make them loyal to you for years to come. Each is simple to grasp, but each
also require discipline and practice—just like our manual dental skills.
These areas are Hidden Agendas, The Four Lines of Styles of Behavior and
The Shortcut Clues to Effective Communication. Let’s look at each one in
Hidden Agendas (the “Questions Behind the Questions”)
As scientists, we are taught that all things can be explained in scientific
or rational terms. When an irrational component is added to a situation however,
it becomes more challenging for us to easily understand what is happening
in an interaction. So it is with the conversations or discussions we have
with our clients.
As dentists, our world is largely dominated by our commitment, if not fascination,
with dentistry. It is our livelihood, our means to make a living and our
profession. We live, breathe and think it for a big part of our day. For
our clients, however, dentistry may just be a scratched note in their day
planner. It is an afterthought to fit into their busy day’s schedule. It
is not dominant in their lives and when they come into our office spaces,
they are certainly there for dental purposes, but not necessarily at the
same level of interest or enthusiasm that we are. They have other priorities
and we may fail to acknowledge, or even notice this. We play to our strengths
and converse with them as though they were dental students—we educate them,
inform them and convince them. It is possible that some of your clients just
may not be looking for that, because they have their own agendas when they
are with you and, shocking though it may seem, those agendas are likely to
include issues other than teeth. What might these be?
Some of the “hidden agendas” that your patients may carry into your office
(but not be able to articulate in the midst of the dental barrage you are
providing) include fear, trust, guilt, anger, money, time, spouse (or “other”)
or inadequacy. Ironically, none of these may be about you, per se, but any
of them can influence how (or if) your communications with them will be successful.
By identifying the “hidden agenda” that a client might have, it becomes possible
to reach them in a verbally intimate way that will touch them at a very deep
level and make them appreciate you as a human being, in addition to your
technical skills. It is not so much about fixing any of your patients’ agendas
as much as it is about simply acknowledging them. When you have succeeded
at that, these people will care for you as you have for them.
The Four Lines of Behavior
Many of us delight in the marvelous differences between dogs and cats. They
are, of course, as different as day and night and their behaviors constantly
remind us that you can no more train a cat than you can expect a dog to want
less affection. In a similar fashion, we notice that a lion is different
than a canary and we never really expect these diverse life forms to behave
similarly. It is not as easy to appreciate the differences between people.
When we encounter others who are so different from us, we tend to become
irritated and begin the “blame game” of why they are wrong and we are right.
We may let these perceptions block our appreciation for what they are, as
opposed to what we want them to be.
Many complicated and lengthy tests can help us determine personality types,
but a much simpler form of assessment can be determined by others’ outward
behaviors. Much like an iceberg that is mostly invisible (since it is under
water) peoples’ personalities are rarely displayed to the public, making
a “personality” assessment all but impossible. On the other hand, observable
behaviors are available for all to see and, if we are astute in our observations,
we can learn much about how others function and what their strengths may
be. These may not always line up with our own and it is not our job to try
to change others (including our spouses!) but rather to simply become more
aware of how people who are significantly different than we are can still
be very effective in their own way.
Four areas of interest are: How people make decisions, how they prefer their
environment, where they fit into the accuracy and perfection scale and how
people relate to other people. The spectra for these lines range across the
board and it is both enlightening and entertaining to learn how (for example)
an individual who is the diametric opposite from you on the accuracy and
perfection line can even survive! Just think about how people on each end
of this line of behavior (high and low needs for accuracy and perfection)
might deal with balancing a check book! As we gain a greater appreciation
for these differences, we are able to see that people who are not like us
at all can, in fact, add much to our lives rather than disrupt them.
The Shortcut Clues to Effective Communication
Perhaps the most amazing skill we can learn is to identify clues in the visual
and verbal behaviors of others and then to instantly reflect them back by
altering our own behaviors. In this ultimately simple skill, we require no
analysis and no deep thought, but rather simply a willingness to actually
notice what is happening right in front of our own eyes and then modify our
own styles to become slightly more like the other. People tend to feel most
comfortable with others who are similar and when a client’s experience of
the provider is that he/she is “actually much like me,” the communication
will automatically become easier and more acceptable. For example, if we
have a patient who needs little data and is not “chatty,” a lengthy explanation
of procedures is neither appreciated nor necessary. The “clues” that you
can seek are in their gestures, facial expressions, tone of voice, need for
data (or not), eye contact and others. As we remain “stuck” in our own way
of being, so we shall fail in our genuine connection with patients. In my
own pediatric practice, I constantly use this tool to measure how I will
interact with my young clients and their parents. It is powerful, wonderful
For all members of a dental practice this tool can make the scheduling of
a “difficult” patient smoother, the case presentation to a client who asks
“thousands of questions” more effective and will, in the end, provide everyone
with exactly what they most want—a genuine conversation, rather than a lecture.
When a financial coordinator, receptionist, assistant or doctor puts these
skills in action, the patients will notice and will respond favorably.
In the end, these three tools are available for all and are not difficult
to understand. The success of these skills, however, lays in the willingness
of the health professionals to accept that the responsibility for a successful
dialogue must lie within oneself. In spite of our standing as professionals,
we cannot expect that the patients will change their own behaviors. They
already have enough going on just by being in your office. The real power
of these skills lies in our own ability to notice what is happening in our
interactions and make the necessary modifications in our own ways of being
in order to connect with others.
After 30 years of being a dentist, it is clear to me that few, if any, of
the parents or children who come into my office return because of the lovely
margins on a posterior restoration. The comments I receive almost always
have to do with the level of caring that all clients receive. This is a lesson
that I believe is being understood by more and more dental schools, but it
remains the challenge for them to adequately prepare the students for a life
in a profession as diverse as dentistry. To teach the basic sciences plus
the technical skills required for all we do is a daunting task. It is no
wonder that there is so little time in our dental training for classes in
how to relate to our patients. My experience has taught me that once you
are speaking your patients’ language, the satisfaction of everyone’s experience
is enhanced. The three areas of discussion in this article provide a brief
framework of knowledge to be gained and skills to be learned to make those
good interactions a reality.