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The way questions are phrased could mean the difference between staff feeling insulted and unappreciated versus empowered to make the practice as successful as possible.
If members of your practice staff are recoiling or exhibiting expressions of frustration or confusion following a conversation, it could be your choice of words.
When someone wants to speak openly without fear that what they say may be taken the wrong way, they often express the feeling that they “don’t want to count their words.”
The reality, however, is that what we say, and how we say it, can deliver messages to others, both verbally and nonverbally, that we had not intended.
For example, is there a difference between asking a staff member, “Why did your patients cancel?” and “What do you think we can do to avoid patients canceling appointments?”
There is, and the implications are significant.
“The second example is an empowering question that allows the individual to see the problem as something where they can be part of the solution, as opposed to being accused of something,” explains Marie Chatterley, a dental practice transition consultant with CTC Associates.
And most dentists, Chatterley says, struggle with recognizing that difference. Detailed here are effective communication tips for dentists to utilize when holding discussion in their practice.
Chatterley believes the first step dentists need to take to improve their communication and questioning skills is to self-evaluate. In other words, step back, look at the problem that you’re considering approaching staff about, and determine how you can articulate the message differently—and when that conversation should take place.
For example, if you want to discuss with a staff member why the practice is experiencing cancellations, it should not be done in front of patients, or in front of other staff members if the communication is directed to one person. The exchange should take place in a comfortable environment that fosters open communication. In addition, it’s beneficial to practice or rehearse ahead of time so that you’re comfortable with what you want to say.
Think of this from a goal-setting approach.
“The first goal might seem to be how am I going to reduce cancellations, but that has to be secondary,” Chatterley says. “The first goal has to be how can I improve communication with my staff, and empower them to make the changes we need to make in order to be successful.”
Phrasing questions in a way that make staff members feel attacked or unappreciated can have a negative impact on practice dynamics, and dramatically affect the patient experience. When one staff member feels the interaction with the dentist or another team member is not warm, friendly or welcoming, it’s hard to approach patients feeling underappreciated for a poor performance.
There’s a stereotyped image of gender communication where a wife says to her husband, “You’re not listening to me.” He responds by saying, “I hear everything you say.” But the reality is, hearing is not listening. The former is a physiologic function that occurs automatically. Actively listening is quite different.
“It’s the most important part of communication,” Chatterley says. “If you’re truly listening, then you’re identifying the needs of the individual. And you’re understanding how they view the problem or situation.”
That’s true whether communicating with staff or patients. Chatterley says that if dentists improve their communication skills with staff, they will naturally have a better experience with patients by being able to better articulate questions to resolve patient issues.
“As dentists improve communication skills, there’s a carryover effect with every aspect of the practice,” she says. “It improves the performance.”
Chatterley says that an important aspect of improving communication with staff as well as is for dentists to have their heart in the right place.
“View individuals are human beings who have interest, fears and desires,” she says. “And when you see patients and staff as someone like that, it hard to be devoid of caring because you’re now seeing them as an individual as opposed to an object that’s a means to an end.”
For example, Chatterley says when the dentist approaches the staff member who handles patient cancellations, the objective is to stop all the cancellations. The staff member becomes a means to making that objective happen. But if a caring component is added to the exchange, that staff member is now viewed as someone who is valued and appreciated.
“And my questioning is different,” she says. “It’s empowerment that I feel confident in their ability to resolve the problem with me, as opposed to me being a director who’s telling them what to do.”