Sleuthing for the right questions to ask

April 1, 1999
The best way to discover what your patients truly desire is to ask. However, most dentists and their teams are trained to tell, tell, tell. When you "tell" patients information, your words often fly right over their heads. When you ask the right questions, three things happen:

Get your patients to listen to you by listening to them.

Nate Booth, DDS

The best way to discover what your patients truly desire is to ask. However, most dentists and their teams are trained to tell, tell, tell. When you "tell" patients information, your words often fly right over their heads. When you ask the right questions, three things happen:

1) You direct the patient`s thinking to the areas you want to focus on.

2) You develop rapport. You let the patients know that you are interested in their unique desires. If you want patients to understand what you are all about, you need to understand them first.

3) You gain valuable information. You can use this information to show patients how they can get what they desire by accepting your treatment plan.

Great influencers know this. They spend 20 to 25 percent of their time talking and 75 to 80 percent listening. Plus, they get the most important information because they ask the right questions - questions that typically fall into five major categories: 1) probing, 2) problem discovery, 3) pain amplification, 4) pleasure discovery, and 5) positive action.

Fine-tuning your skills

Dentists and their teams are highly skilled at asking certain types of questions, especially probing questions. We simply need to take these fundamental skills and start asking the right types of questions from the other four categories as well. Your goal is to find out what patients want and then show them how your treatment plan can help them get it.

1. Probing questions uncover the background and factual information you need to know about a patient. They also get patients thinking about their current dental health.

Examples of probing questions

-Have you had a good experience with dentistry in the past?

-Have you been given good home-care instructions?

-Are you pleased with the quality of your smile?

-How often do you have your teeth cleaned?

-Would you like all the details about the treatment that needs to be done, or just an overview?

2. Problem-discovery questions reveal a patient`s current dental problems.

The questions even can make patients aware of problems they didn`t know they had. As patients answer the questions, they experience the pain of the problem, giving you an opportunity to suggest a treatment plan to relieve the pain.

Examples of problem-discovery questions

- Do your gums ever bleed when you brush or floss your teeth?

- Do you have difficulty opening or closing your mouth at times?

- If you could change one thing about your smile, what would it be?

- On a scale of one to 10, how would you rate your fear of dentistry?

- When you chew food, do you tend to favor one side?

3. Pain-amplification questions expose the past, present, and future physical and emotional pain caused by a patient`s problems. As patients answer these questions, the pain of their problem is amplified. For example, if a patient complains about the space between his front teeth after you ask him what he would change about his smile, you might ask the following pain-amplification questions:

"How long have you thought about correcting that?" (the past)

"How does the space between your teeth affect your self-confidence?" (the present)

"What might happen to you personally and professionally in the years ahead if we don`t improve the appearance of your smile now?" (the future)

Of all the different types of questions, pain-amplification questions are the least likely to be asked by dentists and their teams. Many dentists say they are uncomfortable asking these questions, because they don`t want to "hurt" a patient. You are not "hurting" patients. The pain is there already, but many patients live in denial and sweep their pain under the rug. You are asking questions that can help patients recognize their pain. As health-care professionals, it is our responsibility to pull the rug back and give them a clear view. Only then can they take constructive action to improve their oral health.

Examples of pain-amplification questions

(As asked of a patient who has expressed a sensitivity to cold.)

Past Tense:

-How long has this area been sensitive to cold?

-Has it kept you from eating or drinking anything in the past?

-Has the pain awakened you at night?

-Does the pain subside as soon as the cold is removed, or does it linger?

Present Tense:

-Is the tooth sensitive when I blow air on it?

-Is it sensitive when I squirt water on it?

-Is it sensitive to anything else like sweets or hot food?

Future Tense

-Do you feel like the tooth is getting progressively more sensitive?

-Are you concerned that if we don`t do something now, it will get worse?

4. Pleasure-discovery questions tell you what pleasures the patient desires.

You want to give your patients options and solutions for relieving their pain. As patients answer this type of question, they actually experience pleasure. You then can link that pleasure to the acceptance of your treatment plan.

Examples of pleasure-discovery questions

-What did you like best about the dental office you used to go to?

-What`s most important to you about the dental treatment you receive?

-How will your life be better when we improve the appearance of your smile?

5. Positive-action questions are "yes"-inducing questions that influence patients to make commitments. These can be small commitments made during your case presentation or the final commitment made at the end of the case presentation when your treatment plan is accepted.

Positive-action questions encourage patients to take numerous small steps to case acceptance, rather than one big commitment at the end. Most people prefer to take small steps, so it`s best to sprinkle these questions throughout your case presentation.

Examples of positive-action questions

-If we could fix your tooth so it wasn`t sensitive to cold anymore, you would want to do that, wouldn`t you?

-You do want to stop this bone destruction before it becomes more serious, don`t you?

-Does Option A or B look better to you?

The power of questions

In today`s hectic world, life moves at an incredibly quick pace. In many ways, questions force us to slow down and pay attention to what is really important in life - our fellow human beings.

As a dental-care provider, you have a special opportunity to impact people`s lives in a most profound way. By asking thoughtful questions and listening to patients, you show them you care and make them feel special. One of the greatest gifts you can give someone is your time and attention. That, in the end, is what keeps patients coming back to your practice and what motivates them to refer their family and friends.

Keep these points in mind

1. You can ask the questions verbally or in writing.

2. Questions supplement, rather than replace, a thorough examination and diagnosis.

3. Don`t overwhelm a person with too many questions at one time.

4. Create a "toolbox" full of questions, so you`ll have the right question available at all times.