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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...


Changing how you educate to improve your EQ

How do you educate your patients? Do you rattle off a bunch of dental and medical terminology, show them some diagrams and talk about equipment specifications? Or do you really reach their concerns?

When you’re educating a patient, it’s important to keep the goals for education in mind. You’re not trying to deliver a mini-course on dental medicine and stuff their brains full of information. You’re not trying to show off the cool technology in your practice like a salesman trying to persuade them to purchase a digital X-ray machine for their home.

Your goal is to help them understand why their condition is dangerous to their long-term dental health, and what they can do to improve their long-term prognosis. Ultimately, you want to help them adhere to the treatment plan that the dentist has developed for them.

Sometimes, this is easy. “You might want to look into a water flosser for home. It will help with those gums and make the next appointment less painful. I have a coupon right here.”

Other times, you need to take a deep breath and explain something difficult about gum loss, tooth loss or systemic health issues. These are tough conversations, and you need to put them in terms a patient can understand. “If we can’t address this, you will likely need dentures,” or “This surgery can help, but you’ll need to be sedated for it.”

Related article: Are you asking the right questions about your patient's health history?

To be a great patient educator, you need to plan and practice, just like a classroom teacher does.

  • Develop a “lesson plan” for common problems that uses clear, non-medical language and focuses on the impact to a patient’s life.

  • Have family and friends review the script to make sure it’s understandable and addresses their questions about a condition or procedure.

  • Let the dentist review the script to make sure it’s accurate, but don’t add too much technical detail.

  • Practice your delivery.

  • Be ready to improvise to meet the needs of the person in front of you.

You may never “perform” the script word for word as you’ve written it, but just the practice of putting together a plan and delivering it a few times to learn it well will help you reach your patients and address their real-world concerns about pain, radiation, recovery times and disease prognosis.

Ending appointments on an up note to improve your EQ

In some ways, a dental appointment is like a movie. People can take all sorts of emotional upheaval and stress as long as everything ends on an up note. You’ll be more effective at connecting with patients if you ensure that you end every appointment on an up note and send them out the door hopeful and energized. And when you send them on their way with hope, they’re likely to return with better oral health.

For instance, one orthodontist’s office became accustomed to a young patient checking in on her way home from school, even when she didn’t have an appointment. She’d been a “problem patron” in the past. Her love for taffy had left her with constant loose wires, missing brackets and even displaced bands. Yet suddenly, she was coming in several times a week -- and not for treatment.

She just wanted to show “Miss Kristi” what a great job she was doing on not breaking her braces. And every time she came in, Kristi took a minute to look at her smile, praise her for her efforts, and tell her she looked beautiful and was doing a great job on treatment. Miss Kristi was using her connection with this patient to inspire and uplift her, and it was making a real difference.

Your mission is to inform, accompany and inspire your patients. You inform your patients when you educate them about their condition and treatment plan. You accompany them when you tell them that you know they’ve been trying hard, and that you sympathize with their pain and struggles. And finally, once they know where they’re at and see that you will meet them there, you inspire them to try to improve their oral health by giving them a glimpse of what a healthy life would be like.

When you meet your patients where they’re at, speak to their needs and ultimately uplift them, you are forging real connections that will improve their lives and health for years to come.

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

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

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