Th 293078

Ethos, pathos, and logos

Aug. 1, 2008
Aristotle believed that salesmen were the most important citizens of ancient Athens.

by Barry F. Polansky, DMD

For more on this topic, go to and search using the following key words: Aristotle, entrepreneurs, persuasion, credibility, rhetoric.

Aristotle believed that salesmen were the most important citizens of ancient Athens. He felt this way because salesmen, more than any other profession, understood rhetoric. Rhetoric is the art of speaking or writing effectively. According to Aristotle, rhetoric is "the ability, in each particular case, to see the available means of persuasion." When you consider that 82% of dentists in America are entrepreneurs — that is, they own their own dental practices — then it might be a good idea for them not only to learn how to do fine dentistry, but to learn how to sell it as well. In order to sell, let's take a look back in time to see what one of the greatest minds of the Western world meant by the term rhetoric.

The great philosopher defined rhetoric as having three basic components. The first component, ethos, means credibility or ethical appeal. It's your personal appeal. Ethos answers the question that anyone whom you are addressing, whether in a case presentation or as a public speaker, is silently asking: "Who are you and can I trust you?" In other words, are you someone worth listening to? Are you credible? As a doctor, you come with a certain amount of credibility because of your degree and reputation. Ethos reveals itself through your demeanor, your words, and your actions. To position yourself in a positive light as an expert, you must show authority in your field. You must use confident gestures, make continual eye contact, and show people how to respect and look up to you. If you want people to believe you, the most important thing is to believe in yourself, and that is the heart of ethos — the reason why it can't be faked.

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In order to have ethos, you must be the real deal. In other words, to project confidence, you must be competent. That is the difference between a real professional and a charlatan. A high self-concept is at the core of ethos.

Pathos, Aristotle's second component, means persuading by appealing to the listener's emotions. The magic of emotional appeal is often spoken about in sales seminars. Pathos implies to your audience that you can feel their pain … you have empathy. You understand their needs and have made them a priority. The very best way someone conveys pathos is to become an extraordinary listener and a skilled storyteller. By uncovering what really matters to people, we can then express emotionally how we feel through the use of a story. Habit 5 of Stephen Covey's classic book, "The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People," expresses this idea of pathos in one sentence: "Seek first to understand, then to be understood." If ethos is compared to self-concept, then we can compare pathos to the art of building strong relationships.

Finally, logos, which means "word" in Greek, refers to the logical or rational component of your presentation. Dentists usually refer to the treatment plan as the logos part. That portion of your examination in which you have invested so much time and energy, that you cling to like a treasured heirloom, the treatment plan that you will go to your death to defend … well, that's your logos, baby. It's your claim to fame. It's your justification for even sitting down with your patient. It's the well-thought-out logic of every single step you will take to bring your patient to that perfect conclusion. It's what you spent all those hours in dental school for and what you continue to spend all your money on when you take a continuing-education course. Logos was Aristotle's favorite technique of the three. Remember, he was a master of reasoning, a brilliant logician, and a great persuader in his own right. After all is said and done, doctor, you had better know your work.

But without ethos and pathos, you will be looking at the back of your patient's head as he or she leaves your office without saying goodbye. In the words of any veteran salesman, "People buy you first, before they buy your dentistry," or put another way, "People buy on emotion and justify on logic."

Recently I saw this whole concept played out in my office — a real-life embodiment of ethos, pathos, and logos. Ernie, a 20-year veteran patient/friend in my practice, came in for his hygiene appointment. Ernie had recently returned to the practice after suffering through an extremely painful incident in his life. His eldest son took his own life. Ernie followed his son home one night and watched as he drove his vehicle into a tree. Ernie, as you can well imagine, had a nervous breakdown. His life was put on hold. Teeth were no longer a priority.

In time, with the help of expert psychiatric care, he got his life back. On this particular morning, Ernie came in very distressed; you might even say agitated. Evidently he hadn't taken his medication, and he was having some family issues that needed to be resolved. He had a dental appointment, but he wasn't really in my office for his teeth. Ernie needed help. He commandeered my office by asking my staff and me to assemble in my private office. He stood behind my desk and said that he loved every one of us. He told me that he trusted me like a brother. He then said that he needed to speak his mind and get things off his chest. Ernie then told us his rules. No one could speak until he gave us permission, until he had been heard. I envisioned a scene from the movie, "Dances with Wolves," when the Indian chief passed around a "talking stick." Finally, Ernie said, if we did this, he would do anything we recommended, including readmitting himself into a mental hospital.

The morning ended well. Ernie was admitted for psychiatric care, and he has totally recovered. He is doing fine and keeps his appointments — the old Ernie is back. A few days after the hygiene event, I realized that Ernie, even in his altered state, had demanded what Aristotle described: ethos (his trust in us), pathos (his need to be listened to), and logos (our final recommendation … the treatment plan). What I really found remarkable was the order of each component that Ernie described. Ethos and pathos were prerequisites for logos. In other words, the order of components was just as important as the element itself. Ethos, then pathos, and then logos.

I hope I didn't turn off any dentists when I opened the article citing Aristotle. Ethos, pathos, and logos are timeless principles of persuasion. Most dentists don't really understand persuasion. Many dentists consider "sales" a dirty word. Many dentists are in love with the "Hail Mary pass." They present their cases way before the time is right. Sure, occasionally the dentist will score, but mostly patients will reject the plan, especially the elaborate restorative cases. I don't care how wonderful your treatment plan is — you may get to do a few in your career — but if you master ethos, pathos, and logos, you can build a great life in dentistry … consistently doing the dentistry of your dreams.

Barry F. Polansky, DMD, practices in Cherry Hill, N.J. Author of the book, The Art of the Examination, and publisher of "Dental Life," he is on the visiting faculty of the Pankey Institute. Send him an e-mail him at [email protected].

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