Beyond Practice Management: Resolving conflict

2009 06 04 14 09 47 485 Drb How To Bug

Nearly every time I go to a dental practice to facilitate a retreat, everyone is all smiles.

Everything is just wonderful. We have no problems. We all love each other and our jobs. We work together like the best team in the world. We have no differences; we're all on the same page, and we support the vision and mission of the practice.

We all do more than what is in our job description, and we're exemplary team members and contribute to the success of the practice in every way. We're always on time, never miss work, and constantly look for ways to reduce overhead, increase profitability, and improve the image of the practice. Our practice is great.


I know what really goes on, and that's part of the reason I'm there. It's not a negative comment about the doctor or his or her practice. It's just reality. Every practice has a certain amount of dysfunction, and it takes constant attention and leadership to make a practice a great one.

There's plenty of gossiping, lack of accountability, backstabbing, absenteeism, doing the minimal work to keep the job, and there's rarely a situation that someone contributes to the practice in a meaningful way much beyond what is expected of them. Teamwork is close to nonexistent; everyone is doing his or her own thing and blaming the next person down the line if something doesn't go right. Further, they're playing victim because "it isn't my fault or my responsibility." Worse, underlying conflict can be so thick that coming into the room I can feel the negative energy charge.

So here you are, faced with a host of issues and problems, and all you're trying to do is excellent dentistry. It's like you're trying to work in an office where everybody has to walk around the elephant sitting in the practice that everyone pretends isn't there. Or, you have to tread so lightly for fear you'll break one of the many eggshells on the floor if you don't watch your step. Boy, you didn't sign up for this, did you?

The most significant reason that practices get into these awful spots is really the lack of a very important skill: conflict resolution.

Yes, the team members are really nice people. They are talented and creative, and they really want to be model team players and contribute all their talents and skills. However, things started going wrong quite a while ago, and no one knew how to deal with them. Hence, one little problem led to another and another and another, and pretty soon there's the elephant.

Resolving conflict is one of the most important skills one can learn to experience success in life. In fact, some say it determines our success.

Since conflict is inevitable, what steps can you take to resolve your team's own conflicts and internal strife? How can you make conflict a win-win proposition, something that will propel you to greater communication, teamwork, enjoyment, and success?

  1. Someone should open the discussion with an "I" message. For example, "I am frustrated that we never follow through on what we agree to do at a team meeting." Or, "I am sick and tired of being the only one who takes out the trash."

  2. Jointly clarify the issue promoting the disagreement. This is where you'll discuss what the person meant. Get details, be specific. Ask the team member to talk more about the conflict. This is not the time for any generalities! Everyone involved should listen; it's your job to make sure that happens.

  3. Jointly decide the results everyone is looking for. No pretending allowed; that just perpetuates the conflict. Everyone involved should be heard and understood before deciding a direct, intention, or focus. One easy way to make sure each person is heard is to have someone (if you're dealing with multiple people) repeat back what he or she just heard the other person say without using the same words. Then, the person who first spoke must agree that the other person correctly heard what was said.

  4. Brainstorm alternatives. Once everything is completely "out on the table" and the desired result by all has been agreed upon without reservation, now is the time to come up with possible solutions. Too often we go from step 1 to step 4, because we're all "fixers" and no one likes disagreement! Follow the general rules of brainstorming, such as all ideas being valid and worthy of recording so that they can be discussed.

  5. Tentatively select the best option for the team. This is a great time to quit being the dictator and instead be a facilitator. Leading a dental practice doesn't mean barking out commands. It does mean -- among many, many other things -- setting the direction and tone for the practice. This is a prime opportunity to have team members take ownership of the situation and agree as a team on what is the best option.

  6. Set a date for review of the selected option. This last step is often forgotten. Make it a point to get a consensus on when it's time to review the option decided upon by the team. Write it down, and follow through on the review when it comes time. Assess -- with the team -- how the option is working. If needed, make a new choice. Choices need not be fatal.

Now that you have a format for working with conflict and everyone sees that conflict can be resolved in a productive way, continue to encourage openness to conflict and a willingness to engage in conflict in a nonthreatening way.

There are additional ways to handle conflict constructively, and they are all just skills to be learned. I encourage you to seek out other methods. By increasing your repertoire of skills -- and that of your team's -- you'll develop a workplace where it is safe to disagree. Further, you'll accomplish more, learn more, and be happier.

Best of all, you won't have to walk on eggshells or around that elephant, who takes up way too much space in your office anyway.

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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