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    How to connect with patients on an emotional level, Part 2

    Concrete steps to help you improve your emotional intelligence.

    In the first part of this series, we explained why it’s important for hygienists to be able to build strong emotional connections with patients. Connection skills, or what the experts call emotional intelligence (EQ), come more easily to some people than others, but all of us have times where we fall short—where we could have served a patient a bit better if we’d taken the time to build a stronger connection. The good news is that you can learn to make better connections with patients and become the high EQ hygienist you want to be. 

    The key is to analyze your weaknesses, learn what someone strong in these areas does and then practice those behaviors with your patients. At first, you may need a mental script to remember your new way of listening or educating. Over time, it will become second nature, and you’ll be able to forge emotional connections with the patients who need your help and expertise.

    Better listening improves your EQ

    Some of the most important moments in a hygiene appointment occur when the patient first sits in your chair. You’ve already studied her file. You know her dental history and the reason for her appointment. But do you really understand why she’s here, what’s worrying her and why she didn’t come in sooner? This is your chance to listen and learn.

    Listening doesn’t just involve a person speaking while you hear their words. To listen well, you need to look at body language, understand tone, and even take into account signs like how quickly someone is breathing or if they hesitate a lot when speaking.

    Related reading: How to connect with patients on an emotional level, Part 1

    If a patient seems nervous or worried, you need to ask questions carefully. Don’t ask for clinical details at this stage. You need to know how a patient feels about the issues that brought her into the chair. Useful phrases include:

    • Did that worry you?

    • Were you frightened?

    • Did it hurt? How much?

    • How did it change your smile?

    • What did other people say?

    These questions will help you get to the core of a patient’s feelings about her oral health and her current problems. What is really bothering the patient in front of you? Is she afraid that she’s losing her teeth? Does she feel like she’s ugly because of her tooth issues? Is she drowning in guilt because she thinks a cavity or some tartar is her fault, for not being good enough about brushing? Once you know the emotional load a patient is carrying, you can begin to alleviate fear and stress and show her the way forward to a better dental future.

    Using books, movies and music to improve your EQ

    When you’re faced with a difficult patient, empathy is key. Sometimes you can have the joy of explaining to a guilty patient that no, her caries aren’t because she eats chocolate sometimes, but because of the bacteria inhabiting her mouth. You can rejoice in her joy and relief.

    But what do you do about a patient whose problems really are the result of her actions? What if she smokes or drinks heavily? What if she’s deliberately ignored your advice time and time again and has no desire to change? What if you can’t break through the walls a patient has put up, or you simply dislike her attitude?

    The phrase “It must be hard to…” helps you develop empathy where you don’t naturally feel a connection with another person. By focusing on their struggles and hardships, you put yourself in their place, and you can see yourself through their eyes. 

    However, the “It must be hard to” statement has to reflect the other person’s lived experience. There are things in their life that you would find hard, but they may find easy, or even enjoyable. So, to truly empathize, you can’t just look at your patients’ lives. You have to look at their lives as they see them.

    How can you learn what it’s like to be inside another person’s life? One way is to experience the lives of many different people through autobiographies, fiction, songs and movies. Expanding your reading, listening and watching can expand your EQ.

    Unsure where to start? Challenge yourself to read, watch or listen to something created by someone:

    • Of a different race

    • From a different region of the U.S.

    • From a different country

    • With a terminal illness

    • Who had a disability

    • Who suffered from addiction

    • Who was abused

    • Who grew up richer or poorer than you did

    When you’re watching a film or reading a book to learn to empathize, don’t try to argue with the main characters and their perceptions. Instead, recognize that this work of art depicts something about how they view themselves and the world. It’s a chance to see their lives and see what aspects finish the phrase “It must be hard to…”

    Trending article: 5 surprising things your patients don't know about their dental visit

    After you’ve completed the challenge list, think of your most difficult patients. Do you understand them better now? Do you need to search out more movies, books and music to understand them? The next time they’re in the chair, ask what movies or music they love, and make a note to go and experience them.

    Up next: Improving your EQ by educating patients...

    Productive Dentist Academy
    Productive Dentist Academy (PDA) was co-founded in 2004 by Dr. Bruce B. Baird and Vicki McManus to help dentists increase their ...


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