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


Your emotional connection with a patient can make or break a practice.

You can tell the patient in your chair is frightened. She tenses up when you ask her to open her mouth and grimaces before you even touch her teeth or gums. Her mouth is in pretty bad shape, and when you mention something about tartar, she starts to cry. Somehow, you have to care for this patient, prepare her to meet the dentist, and educate her about at-home and in-office treatment plans. But how can you reach someone who’s so frightened? To truly serve your patients and improve their health, you have to learn to connect with them on an emotional level.

Emotion is key

In a clinical setting, people put a lot of work into being calm and rational. You can’t recoil in horror from a mouth that’s in terrible shape or react in anger when a patient hasn’t cared for his restorations. You’ll have difficult patients who insult or annoy you, and you have to remain professional in all situations. Reason lets you assess the situation and give the patient in your chair the best of all possible treatments.

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Reason and detachment can be good tools in stressful situations, but they’re also dangerous. If you focus too much on being detached, you risk becoming some sort of Spock-like character who angers patients by seeming like a robot. As a hygienist, you represent the practice to the patient. The dentist comes in for a few moments, chats and leaves, but you’re with the patients for their entire appointment, from the moment they come back to the bay until the moment they leave.

You are the person who determines whether a patient leaves feeling supported and loved or embarrassed and dejected. Your emotional connection with your patients can make or break your practice. You can’t afford to be too clinical and detached. You need to develop the emotional skills that let your empathize and connect with your patients so that you can set them at ease, educate them and help them heal.

Building connections with patients

You’ve probably met hygienists who seem to connect effortlessly with the patients in their chair, no matter who they are. They can calm fears, elicit a smile or two and get even the most nervous patient chatting. Somehow, these connection superstars help even the most resistant patients accept education, commit to better oral health and plan treatments. What are they doing that makes them so relatable? Is it something you can learn, or is it just a natural ability?

The ability to connect with people relates to your emotional intelligence (EQ). And the good news is that your EQ can improve with training and practice. One key for EQ in a professional situation is that it’s less about emoting than about listening well, and it’s less about persuading someone than about accompanying them on their journey. Hygienists with high EQ meet their patients where they’re at. How do they do this? High EQ hygienists:

  • Listen carefully to what the patients mean, not just what they say. For instance, someone facing a chipped tooth might say, almost as a joke, “I guess that’s just part of getting older, huh?” But they’ll actually mean, “I am afraid that aging means that my teeth are falling apart and that there’s nothing I can do about it.” Learning to see the meaning behind the words can improve your EQ.

  • Empathize with their patients’ struggles. If you don’t naturally empathize with a certain person, psychologists recommend using the phrase “It must be so difficult to…” By thinking about something that is hard for the other person, we put ourselves in their shoes and see them as someone who struggles -- not someone who fails. For instance, “It must be so difficult to have a tooth crumble in your mouth when you’re trying to care for a newborn at home alone.” Learning to empathize with patients’ feelings of fear and helplessness can improve your EQ.

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  • Explain conditions and treatment options in terms of how they will affect a patient’s life and well-being, not in purely technical or clinical terms. You understand the clinical details of dental conditions because that’s how you’ve been educated. Your patients don’t understand the details, and unless they work in a medical field, they probably don’t care. They don’t want to know the exact depth of their pockets or the sort of bacteria in their mouth. They want answers to questions like, “Will this hurt?” “How long will I need to recover?” “Will I be able to eat normal food again?” “Am I doomed to dentures?” Learning to target your education efforts to a patient’s real world concerns can improve your EQ.

  • Leave patients feeling hopeful, energized and ready to take charge of their health. The best hygienists can express hard truths, but also give their patients hope for a better future. They know how to deliver criticisms without crushing a patient, and they give concrete “homework assignments” that patients can use to improve their health. Most of all, they give support and encouragement. They send the message, “I am a professional, and I know that you can do this,” but also, “I will be here to cheer you on and offer encouragement.” You can improve your EQ by learning to leave your patients feeling confident and competent.

To learn more about EQ, get your free download of the EQ section of Vicki McManus’ book, “Frustrations; The Breakfast of Champions,” at

To find out more about the Productive Dentist Academy, check them out here.

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