Know when to nurture and when to nudge

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Being a dentist is hard -- especially at first. Our hands are so unprepared for the nonconventional teeth we face after dental school. In dental school, the hard restorations, root canals, and extractions often disappeared from our views, or they were limited in quantity. We were sheltered.

Or, maybe the public is sheltered from us; that is probably a better way to think about it, because we are often not ready to handle difficult cases. But, once we receive our degrees, something magical happens. We get inducted into the difficult cases academy.

After dental school

Lisa Knowles, DDS.Lisa Knowles, DDS.

Difficult cases and difficult patients seemed to flock to me in the beginning. Fortunately, I completed a general practice residency right after dental school and received a fair amount of training in oral surgery and medically compromised patients. I felt more prepared than some.

Yet, amid this chaotic time of learning how to get my hands to cooperate with my mind, I realized I was now cast into a new role: teacher/professor. I already had a part, I thought! I cannot take on any more roles, I nervously whined to myself.

My staff members were looking to me for answers.

It was uncomfortable because I did not always have the answers. I usually told them what I knew and hoped for the best.

As a more seasoned dentist, I am much more intentional. Now that my hands generally do what I want them to do, and now that I have the ability to see a larger picture in the scene, I am a better teacher -- even director and producer level now.

6 tips

Here are my top six tips for dentists learning how to teach others or produce a dental show:

1. Stop worrying about everyone liking you
Your co-workers may not be your best friends and probably should not be. Helping others learn is not always a pleasant experience, but it is often rewarding. It is much like parenting, but without the 20-year history.

“You might already know the answer, but help someone else find the answer.”

2. Learn how to challenge others without being a jerk
Ask questions. You might already know the answer, but help someone else find the answer. Being a know-it-all or a know-nothing frustrates teams.

3. Nurture others' growth
You will never get into trouble with praise. People love to hear about the good things they do; most do not hear it enough in our hypercritical society. And, as dentists, in general, we are fairly critical creatures. Nurture more often.

4. Nudge others' growth
Use the "Tell, Show, Do" method with team members. Remember that everyone learns differently. Some like to hear it. Some like to see it. Some like to do it to learn. Most of us benefit from all three. Ask the team member if he or she can do things differently or with a different mindset. Nudge them.

5. Watch body cues from others
Body language will often tell you when someone is done learning for the day or moment.

6. Repeat, repeat, repeat
I am always surprised at how long it takes someone to learn a new task. (Of course, I am not surprised when I am learning the new task). Show patience. Hold off on criticizing.

Dentistry certainly provides ample opportunities to learn and grow. As dentists, we are challenged with many tasks. The role of a teacher is one that cannot be left unattended. The team can learn from one another and from us -- the dentists. It's our choice to teach others. I recommend the nurture and nudge method. It provides a team a fair amount of praise along with a fair amount of constructive criticism. Teams need both to develop and mature. Evaluate 2015. Did you nurture your team? Did you nudge your team?

Lisa Knowles, DDS, is the founder and CEO of IntentionalDental Consulting. For more information, contact her at [email protected] or 517-331-3688. Visit her blog site at or website at

The comments and observations expressed herein do not necessarily reflect the opinions of, nor should they be construed as an endorsement or admonishment of any particular idea, vendor, or organization.

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