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It's not magic. It's observation.

Issue 3

What would happen if you could tell how a patient was feeling and could connect with that person instantly? What would the patient’s reaction be?

What would happen if you could tell how a patient was feeling and could connect with that person instantly? What would the patient’s reaction be?

The nature of the dental practice revolves around seeing people: people who come to you in pain, with fear or with potential excitement. Most certainly want something and don’t want something else. The key to serving them effectively is to enhance your role in the practice by remembering that each patient is human-vulnerable, excitable and emotional-no matter how they show it. And that information is essential if you desire value, commitment and accountability to ideal oral health.

Being able to understand and respond to a patient’s emotional state is essential in building a relationship. Doing so, in itself, is the foundation for the partnerships with patients that make the practice stable and complete. Simply put, having rapport builds trust, and when you are trusted, your recommendations are more likely to be accepted. Rapport then leads to increases in efficiency, productivity and quality of care and service. In addition, people who trust you are more likely to say kind things about you outside the office and potentially refer friends and family members to experience that same level of care. Start with the focus on relationships and you will build a thriving practice.

What’s the secret?

The key to building relationships is two-fold. First: Notice! Yep, just pay attention. Don’t get so caught up in being busy that you forget why you’re in the office in the first place. You’re there for your patients, so notice who each patient is and how he or she is really doing. The second part may seem counter intuitive and may take some practice. Don’t fix it.

Most of us have a sense about how another person is doing. Sometimes we miss how other people are truly feeling because we’re busy formulating something to say instead of simply holding a space for that person. As stated earlier, the key is simply to notice. Okay, it’s slightly trickier than that because the art of “reading” a patient takes a bit of psychology.

While volumes upon volumes have been written on this subject, below you’ll find some quick tips and reminders (since you do some of this naturally) for how to take a patient’s emotional temperature and then, how to respond (without fixing anything).

Get non-verbal

Statistically speaking, somewhere between 70% and 93% of any communication is non-verbal or riddled with “meta-communication.” In all likelihood, meta-communication comes in at the higher end of that range which means that the words used in any verbal exchange account for only 7% of the message that’s conveyed by a patient.

So up to 93% of a message delivered is not the words used!

The rest of the message comes non-verbally, in the form of body language and the way the words are spoken. This may seem obvious, but sometimes we miss the obvious. So notice the way people stand, how fast they move and where their eyes go. Do they hold their heads up, keep eye contact and smile? Or are they slumping, breathing shallowly, and have their heads down with mouths slack?

Besides listening to what is being said, deliberately notice the pace, pitch, tone and volume that is used. For example, people who know just what they want will stand very straight, hold direct eye contact and speak somewhat loudly and at a fairly quick rate. At the other extreme is someone who is fearful or perhaps slightly depressed. That person will keep his/her head lowered, hold limited eye contact, speak softly and breathe shallowly.

Certainly there is a range of emotions in between. The key is to notice the other person as a person and not simply the next case of “broken cusp on 19.” Observe the patient behind the tooth number.

Avoid the quick fix

You’ve noticed. Now what? The world of dentistry is one in which you’re trained to find a problem, focus on it and fix it. Here’s your challenge: Don’t fix anything-immediately.

Practice “active observation.” By actively noticing how a people hold themselves, you’ll be able to ascertain their emotional state. For example, you might have a patient coming in for root canal therapy and a crown. Do not start with, “Lisa, you seem anxious about your visit today. Don’t worry because you won’t feel a thing.” Instead, start with, “Lisa, you seem a little hesitant about being here today.” Then just wait. That’s right… pause!

Theorists in Gestalt psychology tell us that people rely on others as witnesses for their lives. Think about it. We tell other people stories about things that matter in our lives in order to get a reaction and to have shared a piece of ourselves. When someone notices something about us without us having to broadcast it, we feel cared for-usually.

Consider your delivery

The way you deliver your message matters. You must match the patient’s emotional level with your own meta-communication in order to build rapport. If someone is feeling a little anxious and you come in booming loudly with a fast pace, there would be a terrible mismatch and the patient would feel judged and not heard. There would be no rapport and it’s likely you would lose the patient.

Match the patient’s emotional state. If he or she is moving fast, head up and eyes making good contact, pick up the pace of your conversation. Match what you observe. If the patient is showing signs of fear or anxiety, slow your pace down, lower your voice and speak softly. Be deliberate and notice how the patient responds to you. The exercise of noticing gives you options for how your future conversations can be. And yes, sometimes conveying compassion has to be practiced.

The whole focus of this topic is where you put your attention. Being able to observe the way another person shows up, determine his or her emotion and make a gentle comment that inspires additional conversation can and will enhance your relationships with your patients (and your team members).

About the author

Dr. Wayne D. Pernell holds a doctorate in clinical psychology. He has been a full-time consultant with Pride Institute for five years and boasts many successful clients across the country. Prior to joining Pride, Wayne provided management consultation and executive coaching services for leaders and their teams in companies such as Charles Schwab and Co., Whole Foods Market and AAA. For more information about the Pride Institute, visit prideinstitute.com or contact Dr Pernell directly by phone at (800) 925-2600 or by e-mail at WayneP@PrideInstitute.com.

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