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Practice success and mental resiliency

May 1, 2008
It's five minutes before your first patient is due. The patient is a "gagger" who requires lots of time and patience.
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It's five minutes before your first patient is due. The patient is a "gagger" who requires lots of time and patience. The day's schedule is full and there's no room for delay. You didn't sleep well last night and aren't at the top of your game. Then, your assistant calls in sick.

What do you do? How you respond is key to whether or not you're running a successful practice.

Do you roll with the punches or let your mindset bottom out? Succeeding in the competitive world of dentistry requires excellent clinical skills and, equally important, mental resiliency — the ability to bounce back from problems.

For years I have worked with the Center for Creative Leadership, a global institution that researches leadership. According to its studies, one of the two biggest career derailers in any business is the inability to adapt to change. (Since there's nothing constant in our world but change, this is a critical skill.) It means that the greatest challenge to your success is often the six inches between your ears.

The attitude-cognition connection

Meeting this challenge requires more than thinking like "The Little Engine That Could." If you don't remember it, this is the oft-told children's story about a little train engine that was told it could overcome difficulties merely by thinking it could. ("I think I can, I think I can!" was its mantra.) That's too simplistic. This is about something bigger — how your thinking affects your emotions and actions and therefore your bottom line.

For instance, if your day starts like the one I described at the beginning of this article, would your mood follow suit? Maybe you would think, "This is going to be a miserable day!" or "I'm never going to be successful!" Perhaps you would snap at your staff. Maybe your attitude would affect your interactions with patients.

According to recent research, our thoughts do have energy and power. In his book, "Science and Human Transformation: Subtle Energies, Intentionality, and Consciousness" (Pavior Publishing, 1997), William A. Tiller, a professor emeritus of materials science and engineering at Stanford University, goes into detail about the theory that thoughts have energy.

In the American Psychological Association's journal, "Emotion" (2005, Vol. 5, No. 2, pages 200-207), authors John D. Herrington, et al., describe the results of their research into how emotions affect performance. They write that positive emotions help the brain's so-called "executive center" solve problems and achieve goals.

The logical flip side is that if your attitude gets stuck in the dumps, your brain can't effectively problem-solve, which is what you, as a business owner, have to do all the time to keep things running smoothly.

What to do

The first step in making your thoughts work for you — and your bottom line — is to recognize if they are "out of whack." If you find yourself thinking, "I'll never be successful," "I'll always have too many cancellations," "This will be a miserable day and the patients won't come back" — or something equally full of gloom and doom — STOP. Take a reality check. Like overly optimistic thinking, overly pessimistic thinking is often unrealistic and illogical (and, as we have established, counterproductive). Will one bad day really make you and your practice unsuccessful? Highly unlikely.

Put things in perspective. When we're pessimistic and our attitude has bottomed out, we are very good at persecuting ourselves and seeing the worst in a situation. We fail to see the other side. Look at the situation like a jury determining a verdict. Write down both sides of the problem — the "prosecution's" argument and the "defendant's" testimony, so you can see the big picture, which is usually better.

In a pinch

Sometimes you don't have the time to write things down, especially in the case of a bad day like the one described. earlier. Often, you have to act quickly to thwart a downward attitude spiral. In that case, take two to three minutes and collect yourself. Go into your office or take a walk down the hall. Put a "tourniquet" on your negative thoughts and readjust them. Do you want the day to be miserable? Do you want to have a knot in your stomach? Do you want to forecast bankruptcy for yourself throughout every procedure?

That approach isn't very realistic because it turns a problem into a catastrophe. It's like Chicken Little crying, "The sky is falling!"

Develop attitudes and expectations for the day that are — at worst — neutral. No, this isn't going to be a great day, but it won't be the end of the world or your practice. Acknowledge that the day is going to be difficult. That's realistic and helps to prepare you. It's also a lot better than thinking, "I don't know why I ever went into this field" or "This practice will never be where I want it to be." Look for whatever ability you have to make the day less difficult, and then use it.

Remember other times when you were short-staffed or similarly challenged and how you and your staff worked through them. Recalling those past accomplishments can assure you that the sky isn't falling. That will enable you to shift your thoughts and mood so you can deal with the present-day challenges.

Take time to make time

"But I don't have time to work on my attitude, not even for two or three minutes," you might think.

Consider the story of the lumberjack from Stephen R. Covey's The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People (Free Press, 2004). A man came across a lumberjack who was furiously chopping a tree. The lumberjack said he'd been working for hours. The man told the lumberjack he should stop and sharpen his ax so he could bring the tree down faster. The lumberjack said he didn't have time to do that because he was "too busy chopping!"

The bottom line is it's very hard to be successful or satisfied if you are worrying obsessively or if you don't take time to improve your situation.

After I have worked with dentists on improving their resiliency, they report — at the very least — that they have a greater sense of hope and no longer feel that their whole world is unraveling. They tell me they start sleeping better and they're not worrying excessively. As their resiliency continues to improve, they even look forward to going to work.

Resiliency is about finding alternative ways of looking at adversities. It doesn't mean ignoring them or adopting an "Everything will come up roses" attitude. Neither extreme optimism nor extreme pessimism are very realistic.

Unexpected events are part of life. You don't have control over them, but you do have control over how you respond to them. If you have been experiencing lowered productivity or excess stress over life's inevitable downturns, evaluate your thoughts. Challenge automatic, negative reactions and beliefs. Use your thoughts' energy and power to fuel your success.

Start thinking like a leader!

Dr. Nancy Haller holds a doctorate's degree in psychology and served as a commissioned officer in the United States Navy. She provides leadership training to dentists nationwide through the Advanced Training Center of McKenzie Management. Reach Dr. Haller at [email protected].

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