Beyond Practice Management: The art of listening

2009 06 04 14 09 47 485 Drb How To Bug

I was an idiot. Well, maybe that's too harsh. I actually believed that once I became a dentist people would show up in my office at their appointed time for me to do all the dentistry they ever wanted and needed. They would pay me (in full, of course), and go merrily on their way, singing my praises and referring 10, 20, or even 40 new patients to me. Wow, life as a dentist was going to be sweet!

It didn't happen that way. New patients -- also known as PEOPLE -- were choosing me mostly for reasons I didn't know, but nevertheless coming in because they either really had a problem or perceived they had a problem. Or they came in because they thought that getting their teeth cleaned was the way to be dentally healthy. Or worse, they came in because I was conveniently located or "on their dental plan."

Not only was I bewildered, I possessed few, if any, skills to communicate well with them. To be honest, I'm surprised most of them came back after their first visit with me.

After nearly a decade into my career, it was suggested that I record my conversations during my new patient exam/consultation so that I could listen to myself. I was embarrassed; I could barely stand to listen to the tapes. What was I doing? It was little wonder that people only chose a small amount of the treatment they needed -- you know, the tooth that was bothering them, plus a cleaning.

I set out to do better. I listened to all sorts of dentists and consultants on how to get people to accept all of my recommended treatment. I mean, some of these people were the "gurus" of dentistry. I tried their suggestions; I tried imitating them; and I tried their foolproof techniques.

It made very little difference; I was trying to be somebody I wasn't, and I actually hadn't learned anything useful. I remember presenting treatment plans using centric relation (CR)-mounted models on a semiadjustable articulator, with 18 full-color photographs of their face, smile, and teeth, a printout of their bite scan, a type-written treatment plan outlining every step of this glorious treatment I was going to provide, along with a color printout of all their conditions and problems, as well as a letter outlining everything that was good or bad about their dental health.

It was an amazing piece of work. I even put it in a glossy folder with my business card in it. How cute. Actually, I'm surprised they didn't RUN back then. You can bet very few came back after that experience. They were blown away, as in blown right out of my practice!

Fortunately, things changed. Or should I say, I changed. I quit chasing after some new selling technique or some foolproof way to get people to say "Yes!" to my treatment recommendations. I quit it all and began -- hold your breath -- listening.

There's a huge difference between hearing and listening. Oh, I was hearing all right. Hearing in my right ear and letting it go out my left through that empty space between my ears.

Nothing in exceptional communication substitutes for good listening. Nothing. Prior to developing my ability to really LISTEN to what the person was saying, I had some personal growth work to do -- lots of it. I had a lot of agendas when talking to patients. I wanted them to accept my treatment plan because I needed the money, and after all, they needed the treatment -- so I thought. I had lots of preconceived notions (also called prejudices) about people and, to be honest, I had so many negative things going on in my life I couldn't really listen anyway. I just wanted to make it through the day.

What changed?

What changed for me? How did I go from where I was to where I always wanted to be?

I'm sorry to say there is no quick formula, which is why this article is truly "beyond practice management." I am going to coach you right now through communicating in a profound way with your patients that will change the way you practice, and the way you enjoy treating your patients. And fear not: You can do this!

I want you to start by asking your patients a simple question: "How can I help you?" Then be quiet, be curious, and listen more closely that you've ever done before. When they're finished with the first question, ask another simple open-ended question (the ones that don't have a yes/no answer) and listen some more. Listen until the person has nothing more to say, then tell them what you've heard them say. Clarification is critical. During your listening, forget about that hygiene check, the mounting emails, phone calls you might need to return, and that you need to make sure your son or daughter gets to soccer practice on time. Clear your mind. Listen with everything you got -- your whole being.

Again, ask another simple question: "How else can I help you?" Guess what you'll do then? Right, you're getting it. Make sure you have truly heard what the person is saying before you utter one word about all of the treatment they'll "need." Remember, it's more important to understand than to be understood. Of course, we dentists want everyone to know how smart we are, so we want to jump in and explain, explain, explain. It's actually a disease almost exclusive to dentists: explainitis. (OK, I'll get back on track.)

Once you have gotten a very clear picture and understanding of what the person wants and why they are seeing you, now's the time for the exam and necessary records. That, of course, is the easy part for us dentist types, but now comes another critical and difficult moment: helping the person understand their condition.

I believe that if a person truly understands their condition, they'll most likely make the best decision for themselves of the options you'll present. Of course, we dentists don't think that's true most of the time, so we nudge people toward what WE want them to do. And that, my fellow dentists, is asking for trouble!

When people feel heard and understood, when they understand their condition, when they have developed trust in you because you're the first dentist who's ever listened to them, they're much more likely to allow you to do the dentistry they do really need. And it's almost always more than what they thought they needed.

See, it's not rocket science. You can do it. Start where I've suggested, and build on a solid foundation of listening, respecting, and relating to your patients -- just like they're real people. You'll not only be doing a wonderful service, you'll actually fall in love all over again with the gift of being able to provide care to the people that trust you to care for them.

Go ahead -- your opportunity is in room 1.

Don Deems, DDS, FAGD, is known is The Dentist's Coach and is actively engaged in private dental and coaching practices. His latest book, The Dentist's Coach: Build a Vibrant Practice and the Life You Want, is available via his website, along with a book he co-authored with Stephen Covey and Ken Blanchard, Roadmaps to Success: America's Top Intellectual Minds Map Out Successful Business Strategies.

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