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 it.

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 greater depth.

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 and effective.

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.

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