Turn on the light!

Oct. 1, 2002
Communication is the bottom line to your success. That statement applies to both your professional and your personal relationships.

by Cathy Jameson, PhD

The author of Great Communication = Great Production shares how good communication skills can activate the grow light in your practice. Communication is the bottom line to your success. That statement applies to both your professional and your personal relationships. How you and your staff communicate with each other and your patients can make all the difference in the world in the success of your practice. The way you communicate with patients will determine whether or not they proceed with treatment, agree to a financial arrangement, or schedule an appointment. In fact, marketing specialists in dentistry indicate that seven out of 10 patients will decide whether or not they will schedule an appointment by the way they are handled on the telephone. So, great communication really does equal great production!

Based on these statistics, it is in the best interests of your practice for everyone to study communication to a greater extent. Now, let's look at what good communication is and how you can improve your skill level.

What is communication?

Communication is an exchange of both information and feelings. A message is sent and a message is received. The key to effective communication is to send messages clearly and succinctly, so that the recipient interprets the meaning of your message correctly. The only way to determine if the recipient has interpreted the message correctly is to request feedback. Or, you can ask the recipient to give you his or her interpretation of your message to see if it was interpreted correctly.

Can you imagine what would happen if people really worked at understanding one another?

There are four things we do with language:

  1. Read
  2. Write
  3. Speak
  4. Listen

All four types of communication are very important with both your team members and your patients.

Read/write: Whether you are sending your practice brochure to potential new patients or sending newsletters to your existing patient family, how you write and present your ideas can make the difference in whether a potential patient chooses your practice, proceeds with treatment, or stays with you. Be sure to critically review every written piece of information that is sent out of your office or used for inter-office communication.

Everything you do says something about who you are and represents the quality of your practice. So, if you aren't an excellent writer or an excellent proofreader, get some professional assistance! A third set of eyes can evaluate your material from the patient's point of view and hopefully pick up those "almost invisible" typos that keep avoiding your eyes.

Don't forget the value of the written information that goes from the business office to the clinical area and vice-versa. So many miscommunications can be eliminated if the written information (computerized or handwritten) is comprehensive and accurate. Evaluate all of your written communications and ask yourself:

  • Is our inter-office information being shared in a succinct and thorough manner?
  • Is our written communication complete enough so that staff members are not constantly asking each other to explain, clarify, or "fill in the blanks?"

Speak: As a team, go over every known scenario in your office. Learn how to communicate your message effectively — saying things clearly, professionally, and nonoffensively. Agree on the verbal and communicative skills that will enhance your scheduling, financing, "money," treatment recommendations, hygiene retention, etc. In addition, identify the normal objections you hear in each of these areas (and any others that affect you). Practice presenting your ideas and needs or practice protocols. Look at ways you can address patient objections — i.e., how can you answer patient objections, how can you get your message across more clearly, and how can you let people know what you expect of them without coming across as aggressive or offensive?

There will be times when confronting another person may be beneficial. If something someone else is doing is having a concrete, negative effect on you, your performance, or your practice, then it is appropriate to confront the person with your concerns. Most people are very uncomfortable with confrontations. They are afraid of being confrontational because they don't want to hurt another person's feelings or make things worse. Many feel they don't have the right to confront someone.

However, not confronting an issue can make things worse. If you leave something inside and do not address it, do you think it will go away? Of course, it won't! So, the best thing to do is to approach the subject and get your feelings out on the table so that you and the other person have a chance to do something about it. If you don't do this, the entire relationship is at risk. The reason most people avoid confrontation is because they haven't been taught the right way to do it effectively. Sometimes people do make matters worse when the confrontation is done in a destructive manner. The good news is that communication is a series of skills that can be learned. No one is a "born communicator." All of us must remain "forever" students of communication.

Listen: Most people agree that of all the communication skills, listening may not only be the most important, but also the most difficult! If you have a relationship that is challenging, listening to each other's points of view is invaluable to resolution. If you are trying to determine a patient's emotional "hot button" or major motivator, listening is essential. If you have an angry or upset person on your team or in your patient family, listening is the single best way to deflect their heightened emotions so that you can begin an equitable conversation focused on solving the problem.

However, listening is easier said than done. So many things can get in the way of good listening: time constraints, busy schedules, interruptions, being unfocused, too much going on at one time, not wanting to listen, being in a hurry to provide a solution rather than hearing the other person out, and ego (thinking you already know the answer, so you don't have to listen).

The world is crying out for someone to listen! Your team members and your patients will be more willing to listen to you if you allow them to speak first and listen carefully to what they have to say. Stephen Covey encourages us to "Seek first to understand, then to be understood." So many times people wrap a solution around a problem before they figure out the real problem. That may be the biggest detriment to problem solving — going after a solution before the actual problem has been determined.

Listening is composed of four valuable skills:

  1. Body language
  2. Tone of voice
  3. Passive listening
  4. Active listening

Whether you are sending or receiving a message, body language accounts for 60 percent of the perception of the message, tone of voice accounts for another 30 percent, and the actual words you speak make up only 10 percent. So, even though the words you speak can make all the difference in the world, 90 percent of the message is everything but the words — and you must be aware of your body language and your tone of voice!

Passive listening means giving the other person verbal cues to continue. Examples of passive listening might be, "OK," "go on," "uh-huh," and "hmm" — simple, nonstimulating responses that encourage a person to keep talking. Remember, you want the information. Don't get in your own way by interrupting and talking too soon.

Active listening means paraphrasing what you think the other person has just said and giving feedback. This gives the person sending the message a chance to validate that you have understood the message — or to correct the communication if it was misunderstood.

Any time a patient comments on something or asks questions, be sure that you are both on the same wavelength. Paraphrase what you think the patient said and feed it back to the patient to make sure you are clear about what he or she said. For example:

Patient: "Dr., are you going to put some kind of covering over all those teeth in the back area? Will they look awful when I open my mouth?"

Dr.: "Mrs. Jones, it sounds like you are confused about what we will be doing in the back of your mouth, and you are wondering what the teeth will look like when we finish."

Patient: "Yes. I'm not sure what kind of covering they will have, how many teeth will be worked on, and what they will look like. I don't want people to know that I have had a lot of dental work done."

Now, you know where the confusion lies and can address those issues. In addition, you know a real "hot button" for this patient — being very uncomfortable about having people know that she has had a great deal of dental treatment.Remember, by listening, you are not necessarily agreeing with another person. However, by listening you are respecting that individual's right to have an opinion. You can respect your patient's opinions and feelings without necessarily agreeing with them.

Every system in your practice is vital to the health and well-being of your practice. However, the fulcrum of your practice is comprehensive diagnosis through treatment-planning and beautifully prepared and presented consultations. If patients do not accept your treatment recommendations, nothing else really matters.

Through my doctoral research and study, I proved scientifically that when a team of dental professionals participate in communication training, burnout and dropout decrease, personal relationships and teamwork improve, job satisfaction accelerates, stress is reduced, and production increases.

Now, go back to the beginning of this article and reread the question I encouraged you to ask yourself. If you answered "yes," then you see (or have already seen) the benefit of continuous education in the area of communication. Integrate improved communication into every aspect and every system of your practice and you will see that "Great communication equals great production."

Can We Talk?

Would spending some time improving your communication skills be worth it if you could accomplish the following objectives?

  • Improve your personal relationships at work
  • Acquire a more cohesive team
  • Reduce the burnout and dropout rate of your team members
  • Reduce stress for everyone in your practice
  • Increase productivity by a minimum of 10 percent
  • See more patients who will accept more treatment
  • Increase the number of patients who accept financial responsibility for their treatment, and reduce the number of patient disagreements over the cost of treatment
  • Encourage patients to schedule appointments at times that are not only good for them, but good for you and your team in terms of making the most of your productivity.
  • Reduce broken appointments and no-shows
  • Increase the number of patients who come to your practice, accept treatment, and stay with the practice over time — no more "falling through the cracks"!

Hopefully, you answered, "yes" to the value of time spent improving your communication.

Six steps to greater treatment acceptance

The following six steps make up an effective "system" of gaining high levels of treatment acceptance:

  1. Building a relationship based on trust and confidence
  2. Establishing the need, both clinically and emotionally
  3. Educating the person about treatment recommendations
  4. Asking for and gaining a commitment, or identifying objections that may get in the way of the acceptance of treatment
  5. Making financial arrangements
  6. Scheduling the appointments

In each of these vital steps, communication skills can make or break the relationship. In each of the six steps, all four kinds of communication come into play.

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