No Drama!

July 1, 2003
There's a place for theatrics — it's called a theater. Melodrama and hyperbole do not belong in the dental office.

by Sandy Roth

You have just settled into a booth in your favorite local cafe, looking forward to a pleasant lunch. The waitress approaches your table, plunks down a glass of water, and, with a deep sigh, lets you know she is not having a good day.

Hoping to provide a bit of comfort, you inquire about how she is doing. Then you wish you hadn't. You get to hear all about the other waitress who didn't show up and how she's having to "pull a double shift" to cover for the lack of staff. She looks terribly haggard and the drama in her voice is worthy of an Academy Award.

Throughout your meal, you observe her huffing and puffing about. The next unsuspecting diner gets to hear the story all over again, only this time with even more affect in her presentation. Everything seems to add to her burdens and you realize that her frame of mind is contributing significantly to the unfolding of events. Glasses clank loudly; condiments tumble as if they've grown legs; dishes rattle and add to the din.

I've been on both sides of this type of situation. As a customer, I often observe the behavior of those who have been hired to make my experience pleasant. Too many times, the tribulations of those employees are publicly displayed — much to my annoyance.

On the other hand, I've lost my cool once or twice. And while venting may have provided a temporary outlet, it certainly didn't make things better. In fact, it only added to my angst.

Several months ago, I received a call from a dentist with whom I was working. "All hell is breaking loose," he cried. "Everything is going wrong. The place is in chaos."

Once he had calmed down, it became clear that the situation was hardly chaotic. While there was a major disappointment, the world had not come to an end. The problem: his key team member had just learned that her husband was being transferred to a city more than 2,000 miles away. While this was sad news, the move would not occur for another six weeks, and the team member was fully capable of training her replacement.

The rest of the staff was distraught, in part, I suspect, due to the anxiety level of the dentist. They had all begun to panic, taking their cues from the dentist who was deeply into freaking out.

While visiting another practice recently, I observed a similar phenomenon. While working with her first patient of the day, the dentist experienced an unexpected complication added about 30 minutes to the procedure. The next patient was understanding, but the dentist was flustered and unhappy about the delay, and was obvious with her patient interaction.

Before the end of the morning, two other events upset the dentist to the extent that she didn't recover until the next day. An unexpected patient turned up; she had an appointment card with that day's date written on it, but the schedule had her coming in the following day. Then, the compressor slipped a widget and came to a grinding halt. The dentist promptly threw a gasket as well.

What a disaster — and not just because of running behind, serving an extra patient, or having to manage a major equipment malfunction. The real disaster was the reaction of the dentist and staff. No one kept calm. They raised their voices, and their tempers flared. Everyone within earshot — including patients — learned more than they wanted about the Black Plague that had struck the office that day. The proximity to this bedlam could not have been pleasant for the patients.

On another occasion, two team members were having trouble getting along. The dentists had specifically asked that I help these two individuals improve the way they handled conflict.

Neither person could remember the issue that generated the initial disagreement, but it was clear that both parties were at a rigid impasse. As we discussed the issues in the team meeting, it was impossible for either principal to refrain from using hyperbole. "You always!" said one. "You never!" said the other. Their language was harsh and emotions were high. It took some time for the group to establish a reasonable culture for problem-solving.

Each example represents a wide array of experiences and situations that asks us to look at how we deal with events that are offsetting. When we observe others, it usually is clear that our response to a problem or crisis can create more strife than the actual situation.

If we can put together some guidelines we'd like others to follow, it might help us govern our own behavior in similar situations:

Don't display your frustration.

Customers, patients, clients, and co-workers should never witness your aggravation or frustration. These innocent bystanders must be shielded from even the most extreme situations. Stuff happens. While it may be annoying, it is your job to handle these events in a way that does not involve or spill over to others.

Most people don't feel sorry for someone who is having a temper tantrum in public — their instincts are to just get away as quickly as possible. And they are disinclined to return.

Drama Queens do not garner sympathy.

I remember a high school classmate who had developed a reputation as a Drama Queen. Everything — absolutely everything — was a big deal. After a while, no one wanted to be around her. And no one believed that her problems were serious.

This girl's style was so off-putting that she never really got the understanding, support, and friendship she so desperately wanted. She instead became a target of ridicule.

Extremes look and sound unattractive.

Ease up on the superlatives. "Always, " "never," "most," "worst," "last," "without a doubt," and other extreme expressions sound silly after a while. Think before you speak and avoid dramatic language that amplifies the situation.

Body language speaks loudest.

Stomping and temper tantrums are understandable for a two-year-old, but they are pretty hard to take in adults. Eye rolling is not pretty. Heavy sighs and deep groans... equally unattractive. Slamming down papers and instruments ... the same. No stage performance gestures, please.

Do not make things worse by making things worse.

Ups and downs are a normal fact of life. How we respond to those inevitable events is a measure of our maturity and sometimes of our character. We have the power to control our emotions.

The more we exercise sensible responses, the more valuable we will be as a friend, co-worker, constituent, and service provider.

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