Take a few seconds, just be still, and focus in on that hum just ticking over in the background – that noise in your head (you know what I’m talking about), the babble that questions and judges, that motivates or procrastinates, that says that’s a great idea or I don’t want to do this anymore.
Sonder (HT to Seth Godin) is the realisation that other people also have a noise in their head, internal lives as rich and conflicted as yours and one thing you can be sure of is it’s different to your noise.
If we seek to connect, build rapport, earn respect or even make change happen it is important to understand that our patients may not necessarily be aligned with our dental thinking and narrative and the vast majority do not know anything close to what we know about teeth.
Accepting this disconnect, how do we seek to make sense of the dentist-patient interaction and understand the way our patients wish to be treated?
We need to start from these points of reference.
· We don’t know what they know.
· We don’t necessarily believe what they believe.
· We don’t always want what they want.
· AND THAT’S OK.
First and foremost, generously accept the ‘AND THAT’S OK’ bit – it will save everybody a lot of angst.
In order to get to know the patient better beyond the superficial we must use a key communication skill, empathy – metaphorically walking in the patient’s shoes in order to understand what they are thinking and feeling, then using that insight to guide our actions.
From the very first time the patient contacts your practice you are gathering information about them (just as they are of you!) and once we meet them and spend time interacting, we should be continuing to build up a picture of who they are, what their story is, what motivates them.
Early on, a repeatable, predictable opportunity is ‘small talk’ – I always emphasise that small talk makes for BIG CONVERSATIONS. Therefore, we need to be mindful of listening way more than we talk (it’s about them!) and allocating sufficient time and enthusiasm for this.
Once we get to the more clinically oriented conversation, we continue to piece together further parts of the puzzle of understanding about the person, as well as their dentition. Things to consider are speaking without jargon, engaging auditory, visual and tactile learning styles (clinical photos of their mouths are very powerful), and crucially, checking for engagement and understanding at every step of the way.
We combine this effective communication with our experience – people who have acted in similar ways in the past are more likely to be motivated by certain stories, actions and motivators going forward into the future. The experienced communicator can even use personality profiling tools such as DISC – however I always emphasise these are just guides and not prescriptive.
Two particular variables play into the unpredictability of ‘mind reading’ in dentistry – time and the complexity of the situation.
As we project into the future, for example a long-term periodontal maintenance program, time brings more variables. Patient circumstances change – financial, psycho-social, geographic, disease progression – once time comes into play, we must accept that the person we understood in one snap-shot of time could be a very different person in 6 months.
In terms of complexity, the dental environment for many patients is triggering and emotion inducing in a variety of ways. Most patients have a degree of anxiety about some aspect of dentistry whether it be procedural/ pain, costs, fear of being shamed or a lack of control – this can cloud judgements and patients are not always ‘themselves’.
Many don’t know what they want – they know they have a problem and are after a fix as conveniently as possible – but they have no idea what their ultimate end goal is and what options there are to arrive there. We need to bridge the knowledge imbalance and try to get them to their optimal end point.
Harvard marketing professor Theodore Levitt famously said, “People don’t buy a quarter-inch drill bit. They want a quarter-inch hole.” Similarly, patients don’t pay their hard earned for a 532 or a 613. They buy a restored smile, an ability to chew again, relief from pain or assurance that they will be OK on their upcoming holiday. Along with this they value intangibles like feeling listened to, the fact that you didn’t shame them when previous dentists have or even reassuring them you’ll stop when they raise their hand.
The only way to predictably enhance connection with our patients is to communicate effectively and aspire to truly see them through the practical use of empathy – this is crucial to go deeper and understand their story, motivators and the voices in their head that are directing them.
We sweat on the technical stuff like materials, bonding, shade, anatomy which of course are all important, however we must realise this is the equivalent of the quarter inch drill bit. Our invoicing reflects this, items of technical service – but often this is not what satisfied patients are paying for, this is not why they readily return for recall and accept your treatment plans, nor is it what tell their friends about when they refer them to you.
Instead if you reframe what your patients really deep down, unconsciously, value – that they are paying in part for some form of ‘mind reading’ – where you have demonstrated to them that you understand and accept where they are coming from and where they want to go – how much more time and effort would you give to learning, developing and implementing effective communication skills alongside the technical skills that we think patients are paying for?