Being a dentist is a highly skilled job. As mentioned in previous articles, we spend years developing these skills, turning ourselves into teeth-restoring geniuses. But we get so caught up in the technical skills of physically treating disease that we can forget about the softer skills. To my mind, these are so important because your patients can judge you on these softer skills. When you focus on your communication and empathy, you are focusing on what’s important to your patients. In this article, we’re going to talk about the most important skill that a dentist needs; the ability to listen.
Listening well is not as simple as it sounds. As a dentist, you need to be able to listen to your patients in different ways. Let me describe some of the ways that you must listen.
When you are building rapport
You will have heard this before but you should never treat a stranger. Strangers don’t trust each other. Strangers don’t like each other. Strangers don’t give each other the benefit of the doubt when things go wrong. In short, build rapport. You don’t need to invite them over for dinner but you do need to know them. They need to trust you.
People like to talk about themselves. It’s everyone’s favourite subject. This isn’t a bad thing, it’s just the way that we all are. So take an interest in your patients and invite them to talk about themselves. You don’t need the full autobiography but when you first meet a patient, you want to hear a bit about them. Get interested in your patients. Listen to them, invite them to chat. I believe that getting to know our patients is the most interesting part of being a dentist. Remember, it’s about people, not teeth.
Take an interest in your patients. It doesn’t have to take long. Not having enough time is not an excuse. And don’t switch the topic back onto you. Make sure that when you reply, it invites the patient to expand on what they have said and doesn’t just let you start talking about yourself. I don’t ask about my patients because I have to; I ask because people are fascinating. You never know what amazing things your patients might get up to. Get to know your patients, they may surprise you.
When you are receiving a complaint
I don’t just mean a written complaint or even a complaint about you. When you see a new patient, they will often start with a complaint about their previous dentist. ‘He filled my tooth and it broke.’ ‘She took my tooth out and three days later it was still hurting.’ ‘I didn’t feel like he had any time for me.’ In situations like this, the patient isn’t expecting very much from you. They just want you to listen.
Of course, you never say anything derogatory about a colleague. You shouldn’t be chipping in with ‘Your dentist should never have done that.’ Equally, I do not believe that you should be defending another dentist’s actions. The patient wants you to listen. Just listen. Don’t interrupt, don’t chime in. Let the patient get it off their chest. When they are finished, express that you are sorry to hear about their concerns and move on.
If your patient is verbally expressing an issue with something that you have done, listen. Again, don’t interrupt or become defensive. This is only likely to inflame the situation. Listen, listen, keep listening. Listen until the patient is finished. You then have all of the information and are in a much better position to address their concerns.
When you are planning treatment
When formulating a treatment plan, you need to know what the patient wants. There’s no point in planning a smile design when all they want is a scale and polish. The most important piece of information when making a plan is what your patient wants. And the only way to get that information is to listen. Listening means that you can create a treatment plan that is tailored to your patient’s desires. Not listening means that the patient will either go to someone else for treatment or, worse, they will have treatment with you and then complain that you haven’t met their expectations.
Another important point is that by listening, you find out straight away when the patient’s expectations are unrealistic. In that situation, you can either realign their expectations or explain that you are not able to deliver what they want.
Listening might not sound like a skill to you. You might not think that you are doing anything at all. If that’s the case, you’re not doing it right. Listening is not just about sitting there and letting someone else talk. You should be actively listening, processing the information, building up a picture or an understanding of the other person’s point of view. If you sit there quietly and then move on, forgetting everything you’ve just been told, that’s not listening. Start listening to your patients today.