Using social graces: Build your practice by building your relationships

By Dr. Robert Maguire, contributing writer

October 6, 2020 -- What are social graces and why are they important? If you look up the definition in an online dictionary, you might see the following: "A skill for dealing with people and society" or "the ability to fit into polite society and behave properly and with etiquette." I don't particularly like the first definition, specifically the use of the word "deal." I would prefer to use the phrase "do life with people." Using the word "deal" makes using social graces sound like a chore or a skill that one needs to develop, rather than an act of kindness or appreciation.

For me, I define social graces as expressions of our hearts. If you want to look at it more deeply, extending social graces really comes from the stories we tell ourselves. Do we feel grateful for our patients and our teams? Are we thankful for the community we live in and for our patient clientele? Our thoughts, or the stories we tell ourselves, generate the feelings we have which, in turn, cause us to act a certain way. If our minds are filled with negative thoughts like "my patients and my team are a nuisance," it's likely that our behavior will come out in an unhappy and annoying way.

Dr. Robert Maguire
Dr. Robert Maguire.

Maya Angelou said, "People will forget what you said. People will forget what you did. But people will remember how you made them feel." Let's be honest, most people are fearful of or dread going to the dentist. Many of your patients come to your office feeling anxious. Extending social graces is a great way to build relationships with them by making them feel special, well cared for, and more comfortable. This applies not only to dentistry but also to all businesses that are involved with people.

Last week, I went grocery shopping at the Market Basket, a popular grocery store chain in New Hampshire. While I'm at the checkout and loading my groceries onto the conveyor belt, the cashier asks me, "Sir, did you find everything you were looking for today?" I replied, "Yes, I did. Thank you for asking." At that point, she proceeded to scan my groceries all the while conversing with me. "Are you enjoying your day so far?" she asked, along with a few other pleasantries. At the end of the checkout was the bagger, an older man neatly dressed wearing a tie and a smile. While checking out, he said to me, "Sir, I've double-bagged your eggs to keep them safe and I'm going to put them here in the seat of your grocery cart." Wow, I was so impressed with his care and concern for my eggs. The checkout experience was a joy, but what made it really special was what the cashier said to me when we were finished. When we were done, the cashier handed me my receipt and my credit card and said, "Mr. Maguire, thank you for shopping with us today. We really appreciate your business and look forward to seeing you soon." Those personal words where she called me by my name made me feel very special. What a perfect example of extending social graces!

Let me ask, are you thanking your patients and your team every day? Are you telling your patients how much you appreciate them and that you look forward to seeing them at their next visit? Sometimes in the busyness of our practices, social graces like these can get tossed aside. If you want to have a practice that is unique and stands out from the rest, then make using social graces a daily priority.

Social graces are more than just the words "please" and "thank you." As I mentioned above, they are an expression of our feelings that come from our hearts. Essentially, it's a right-brain activity that, at times, can be a challenge for many of us left-brained dentists who love to focus on things like procedures, protocols, research, and data. Truthfully, our patients are more concerned about their care and their comfort than they are about the type of porcelain we use to make their crowns.

To connect with our patients, we need to get to the emotional or "feeling level." We extend social graces to our patients and our teams through both our words and our actions. For our patients, we should always greet them by name and always involve them in their treatment decisions. In my office, at the end of every procedure, the dental assistant or the hygienist would do a "minireview" of what happened.

"Mr. Jones, today we did a white filling on your upper right molar. Please wait one hour before you eat. Your tooth may have some temporary cold sensitivity." The last thing we'd ask the patient is, "Mr. Jones, do you have any questions about what we did today?" Usually they would say they didn't and, if that were the case, the dental assistant would escort the patient to the front desk and explain to the administrator out loud, in front of the patient, the treatment that was done and what they had just discussed. In addition, the last thing the dental assistant would do before "handing them off" to the front desk is to thank them for coming in and say, "We look forward to seeing you at your next visit."

Using social graces is also important to strengthen our relationships with our team members. If you want to build up your team, then praise them collectively and individually for a job well done. Catch them doing things well and verbally express your joy. "Team, today when the schedule went nuts, you were able to rally together, and we were able to stay on time. Way to go!" When team members go out of their way to listen to a patient to allay his or her fears, be sure to recognize them individually. Pointing out the good you see is one of the strongest social graces you can share with your team.

In addition to the words we share, we also demonstrate social graces through our actions. Is your office neat and clean? Keeping your office tidy demonstrates to your patients that you care about them. And what about your bathroom? In our office, we would check the bathroom after every patient use to make sure it was always spotless!

Another important action is to spend time with your patients and to "be present" with them. Listening, asking thoughtful questions, and seeking team and patient input are other examples of social graces. To build rapport and trust, be sure to position yourself side-by-side with them and at eye level. Having good eye contact is a winner when it comes to building trust and making patients feel special.

A few other examples of social graces include being on time and remembering patients' names. For 28 years, I lived and practiced in a town of 6,000 people. Whenever I was out and about in town, whether at the market or the hardware store, I would often run into patients of mine. They were always flattered when I said hello to them and called them by name. With 1,700 patients in my practice, remembering their names was a skill I worked very hard at perfecting.

The final important social grace I want to mention is to be nonreactive with a patient who is upset, angry, or just needs to vent. Rather than react, just listen to their concerns. This can be a challenge, especially when a patient is yelling or screaming at you. Over the years, I was always amazed at how not reacting to an upset patient disarmed them. Doing this was truly an act of grace, a true demonstration of character, and a gift of kindness, especially when it wasn't deserved.

Do you want to differentiate your practice? Use social graces every day. It's a great way to build your practice and a great way to have more fun, more joy, and more fulfillment. Remember that extending social graces is an expression of our hearts. Remember that patients will recall more about how you made them feel rather than what you did for them. Lastly, remember the words of my cashier that day I went grocery shopping. "Thank you, Mr. Maguire, for coming in today. We appreciate your business and look forward to seeing you again soon."

Dr. Robert Maguire is a dental speaker, coach, practice consultant, and DiSC (dominance, influence, steadiness, and conscientiousness) trainer who is passionate about leadership and communication. If you'd like more information about him and how he can help you and your team communicate better, visit his website or email him 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.

Copyright © 2020

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