Sharing the trail: A 10-step approach to conflict management

Sept. 1, 2000
Here are 10 tools to help you `walk down the trail` successfully with the variety of personality types you see in your practice.

Here are 10 tools to help you `walk down the trail` successfully with the variety of personality types you see in your practice.

Karen Cortell Reisman, MS

A narrow cement bike trail extends for seven miles from North Dallas to White Rock Lake. This trail is used by a variety of people for an equal variety of reasons. Fast roller-bladers, slow walkers, baby strollers, joggers, children on training-wheel bikes, speed-bikers, and pets of all shapes and sizes use this trail at the same time.

A sign on the trail lists 10 rules those using the trail should follow as a way to share this trail successfully:

(1) Don`t block the trail

(2) Use lights at night

(3) Keep right

(4) Be predictable

(5) Give audible signal when passing

(6) Clean up litter

(7) Do not use the trail under the influence of alcohol or drugs

(8) Yield when entering and crossing trails

(9) Pass on left

(10) Be courteous

Similarly, in a dental practice, doctor and staff are expected to "walk down the trail" with a variety of personality types who have a variety of needs, agendas, and circumstances. This article provides 10 tools to manage conflict in a dental practice using the "White Rock Trail Guidelines."

Don`t block the trail.

Rather than adding to the office`s congestion and causing the trail to become blocked, everyone needs to put three imaginary dabs of super glue on their lips ... then clamp down. When your lips are stuck together, you are forced to shut up and listen. To unclog conflict, everyone (and that includes the dentist) needs to listen nonjudgmentally.

Use lights at night

In the work setting, it sometimes seems as if we`re operating "in the dark," due to unpredictable patients, timing conflicts, missing data, etc. On the bike trail, you need to use lights to see in the dark. On the "office trail," you need your system`s lights on to avoid conflict. Yes, occasionally there will always be times of communication breakdown, but a conflict can be reduced when smooth policies exist. Even better, get your team to help establish policies so that there is mutual ownership and knowledge of office procedures.

Keep right

Bikers, walkers, joggers, and baby strollers need to stay on the right side of the trail to avoid collisions. Similarly, in the dental office, doing the "right things" maintains harmony.

In trying to "keep right," Colleen McKenna writes in her book, Powerful Communication Skills, about four consecutive steps the team can use to defuse potential conflicts:

(1) Define the problem by saying, "I hear ..."

(2) Look for agreement by saying, "I agree ..."

(3) Understand feelings by saying, "I understand ..."

(4) State views calmly by saying, "I think ..."

Treat the other person with respect, listen until you "experience the other side," and state your views, needs, and feelings. By using this approach, empathy increases as hostility decreases.

Be predictable

It`s important to be predictable on a narrow, multi-use bike trail or someone could get hurt. The challenge is knowing how to stay predictable in unpredictable situations in a busy dental office, without becoming "mentally hurt."

C. Leslie Charles suggests six steps in The Customer Service Companion, The Essential Handbook for Those Who Serve Others. By following the six steps listed below, you can maintain predictability during crazy times.

(1) Let the other person explain.

(2) Investigate the situation thoroughly.

(3) State that you want to help.

(4) Talk in a calm, sincere manner.

(5) Empathize with the person.

(6) Neutralize the atmosphere by remaining positive.

Give audible signals when passing

Sometimes, you have to pass around an obstacle. On the bike trail, you do this by giving a verbal signal. Likewise, in the office, you have to deal with patients and colleagues who hurl obstacles in your path. The premise is that, while others often are wrong, there is no future in making them feel wrong.

Expectations must be stated upfront. Charles provides four verbal signals to use:

(1) Respond with a neutral statement such as: "I appreciate your asking about that ...," or "Other people have been under that impression ..."

(2) Gently correct the other person`s perceptions by saying: "Actually, what you really need to do is ...," or "The correct procedure is ..."

(3) Let the listener know the next step in the process by saying: "So, all we need to do now is ..."

(4) Express your appreciation and anticipation of a positive outcome.

Clean up litter

Just as on a nature trail, we leave debris on the office trail. Sometimes, we need to deal with debris left by others as we march through the business process. Cleaning up after ourselves and/or others is an important part of professionalism. One form of "litter" that leads to conflict is upset people. Use the following five steps to deal with upset people - without getting upset yourself!

(1) Relax and take a few deep breaths. The old adage of counting to 10 really works.

(2) Listen to the words and feelings. Often, people just need to vent. It`s your responsibility to listen without taking anything too personally.

(3) As hard as this seems, stay objective.

(4) Take the necessary steps that you can, and explain your methodology to the other person.

(5) Keep your ego down and your empathy up. By doing this, you can concentrate on the results and not on who`s right and who`s wrong.

Do not use the trail under the influence of alcohol or drugs

I wish that Valium or vodka could provide permanent solutions to problems, but it just "ain`t" so. Whether you are on a bike trail or a business trail, you need two other V`s - value and vigor - to communicate effectively.

Value means giving more than is required. Vigor means to bring your enthusiasm, smile, and positive attitude to the table.

Yield when entering and crossing trails

Trails cross, but there are ways to avoid collisions:

(1) Pick your battles. Figure out what issues are worth fighting for before you open your mouth.

(2); Try displaying a sense of humor. If possible, imagine yourself as a fly on the wall while in the midst of your chaos and see if there is anything funny about the situation. It might not be appropriate to laugh at that moment; but, finding the humor will help calm the waters.

(3) Visualize your outcome. Imagine what results you want and then navigate toward that picture.

Pass on the left

Change can be stressful. On the bike trail, that means moving out of your lane and into a different mode. In her book, Thunderbolt Thinking, Grace McGartland illustrates how we can move out of our comfort zone and embrace change in a positive way. McGartland proposes that Thunderbolt Thinkers embody the following:

- Flexibility - another name for change

- Awareness - inside and outside

- Courage - risk and vulnerability

- Humor

- Action - a "can-do" attitude

Be courteous

As hard as it may be in certain situations, life on any trail is easier if we remain courteous. Put down this article right now and go thank somebody - specifically and sincerely - for whatever that person has done for you that you`ve been meaning to acknowledge but haven`t.

Saying thanks feels good - for you and the recipient. Recently I discovered that a retired teacher had donated $10,000 to the Dallas Holocaust Museum, and I wanted to thank this mysterious donor. Upon doing some further research, I found out the donor was my high school senior English teacher. I had not seen her in many years. By thanking her in person, I had the opportunity to renew old ties.

Saying "thank you" - either in person, by e-mail, phone, voice mail, or "snail mail" - is a wonderful way to increase goodwill for everyone.

I wish you good luck as you, your team, and your patients walk, jog, crawl, bike, and skip down all of your various trails in life.

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