Disagreeing is fine, and in many cases, conflict is healthy and can lead to progress. Without different ideas and perspectives, how can people or businesses grow and thrive? How you approach the conflict and work to resolve it is what will shape your relationships forever.
The ugly truth
Alan Stern, DDS.
Amidst the pandemic, the most conflict in the dental industry has arisen from the availability, use, and cost of personal protective equipment (PPE). Through their associations and Facebook posts, hygienists have been accusing their employers of failing to equip them with proper PPE or forcing them to buy it on their own. Dentists have pointed their fingers at hygienists, calling them too demanding, while also claiming the inflated costs of PPE are unaffordable. Hygienists refused to come back, and dentists wanted to cut off their unemployment benefits. It's ugly, and everybody's right.
This is a conflict worth fighting, but it's one that requires finesse. You need to hear and understand your dental staff and patients concerns while also balancing extra expenses and uncertain supplies.
Looking to a prison
Try taking a page from the book Walking Through Anger by Christian Conte, PhD. Using his technique known as the Yield Theory, he was able to calm the friction between maximum security prisoners and corrections officers. Though our disputes don't rise to the violent levels of those at prisons, his strategy still can work in our dental practices.
The 3 components of Yield Theory
Using the following three-step theory can help ease the tensions between you and your dental team:
Listening. Listening is an art that is seldom practiced and more seldom mastered. I use a system called SUAL (shut up and listen). When it's time for me to listen, I try to see myself as a little boy discovering something for the first time and wanting to know more. I do not judge, and I work very hard not to anticipate the person's next thought or how I will respond. Even in the most emotional, heated arguments, I do my (imperfect) best to keep my emotions in check and simply absorb what I'm hearing.
Conte stresses the importance of allowing people to "drain their limbic systems." To allow someone to release emotion, I request the person "tell me more" once he or she finishes venting. By then, the conversation starts to take on a cooler tone.
Validation. Let's agree that we all are doing our best. We all have families. We all have concerns, needs, and wants. We are all stressed, if not fearful, in this moment. No one sees things from all perspectives or has the perfect solution. Therefore, we need first to validate our team members' points of view.
Validating is not saying, "I understand, but." Validating is acknowledging that there is another reality outside of what we see. Validating is responding to someone with respect, intellect, nonjudgment, and a clear sense of empathy.
For example, if while listening to your dental hygienist, you discover that she is worried about encountering aerosols that could accidentally infect her spouse who is undergoing chemotherapy, you have to validate her concern with real empathy that comes from you, as an authentic, loving person. You need to do that thoroughly and sincerely before you calmly and coolly explain the financial and management problems that would happen in her absence.
Once there is successful validation, the door is open to a unified pair of people ready to move toward a solution.
Finding a solution. Even with both parties' limbic systems drained and authentic listening and validation accomplished, finding a solution remains challenging. However, finding an answer with the intent of solving both parties' problems will become much less contentious. You may come to a resolution neither of you would have found on your own. This creates a bond of trust and respect.
This process is a way of life for me and my team. Jessica, my amazing hygienist, is a critical part of our care team. She came into the office one morning to tell me about her childcare issue, which would not permit her to get to the office at 7:30 a.m. on Thursdays. She has worked with me for 12 years and knew this would be problematic. She came up with her own solution. She agreed to come in at 9 a.m. and stay late, if needed. We've been through enough of these discussions and we have a mutual love and respect that makes this process very easy. Jessica has done so many things in our office that are not in her job description, often without being asked, because she knows my perspective as well as I know hers.
As a result, we are not battling over PPE at our office. We trained, learned, got the equipment we thought was best, and implemented with the full knowledge that we may have to rethink our process as more is learned.
The PPE struggle is just the current struggle at dental practices. Inevitably, there will be plenty more. The bottom line is that the strategy you use to approach any conflict will affect its resolution.
The next time you are met with a conflict, hear the person out; discover his or her concerns; validate them in a respectable, compassionate way; and then work on solutions together. Winning may seem paramount, but preserving a relationship with a longtime, trusted employee can be priceless.
If you're having conflict issues in your practice and you'd like to discuss them, email me at BetterRicherStronger@gmail.com to schedule a complimentary 45-minute Zoom call.
Alan Stern, DDS, is a practicing dentist, an American Council on Exercise-certified health coach and behavior change specialist, and the founder and operator of Better, Richer, Stronger. After struggling for the first 30 years of his career, he found prosperity by restructuring his practice around his own unique core values and happiness. Dr. Stern can be reached by email.
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