6 steps to reduce the tension between dentists and dental hygienists

By Amanda Hill, RDH, BSDH, DrBicuspid.com contributing writer

May 19, 2020 -- It's like the Hatfields and McCoys, the Montagues and Capulets, or, for the younger generation, Kanye West and Taylor Swift. There's a clear feud bubbling over on social media between hygienists and dentists. It's hard to watch each side spout off in long angry posts, filled with sweeping generalizations about the other side and how short-sighted their ill-informed opinions are.

How can one side be so right while the other side is so very wrong? Like most relationships, there is probably more common ground than anyone realizes. However, to establish what we do agree on, we have to figure out how to hear each other.

Amanda Hill, RDH, BSDH
Amanda Hill, RDH, BSDH.

I was recently listening to Brené Brown's podcast "Unlocking Us." She was interviewing renowned clinical psychologist Dr. Harriet Lerner about her most recent book, Why Won't You Apologize? Healing Big Betrayals and Everyday Hurts. The two-part podcast was a fascinating study into the art of the proper apology, and it had me apologizing to my family for apologizing all wrong. But the one part that really stuck with me (I listened to it three times and took notes) was about nondefensive listening.

What's nondefensive listening? We have heard about active listening and motivational interviewing, but nondefensive listening was a new one for me. Digging into it, I unearthed all kinds of articles on the internet. However, the long and short of it is that nondefensive listening is listening to understand, instead of listening to respond, blame, or defend. While this makes sense to read, putting it into practice is another beast altogether, especially while we are all under this intense coronavirus-shaped stress cloud.

I took the liberty of breaking down nondefensive listening into six steps based on numerous internet articles.

1. Write down what the other person is saying

This gives you something to do while they are talking, and the act of writing helps you hear what they are really saying -- not how you are interpreting it.

While the person might say, "I'm concerned about coming back to work." You might hear, "I don't want to come back to work." Writing it down will help you see where you are adding your spin.

Be sure to let the other person know you are taking notes. Say something like, "Our conversation is very important to me. Do you mind if I take notes while you speak? This will help me to process what you are saying and remain present." As you take notes, also recognize when you feel defensive. This will not only help you with this conversation but also help you learn how to recognize patterns within yourself. Is there something specific that spins you up every time?

When we disagree, there is a tendency to listen for things other people are saying that are wrong. Be sure to remain present to hear the spirit of what they are saying, even if they aren't using exactly the right words.

2. Focus on respect

Difficult conversations are filled with opportunities for defensiveness. No one likes the feeling of being wrong. However, the moment that disrespect enters the conversation, a healthy dialogue becomes impossible.

Interrupting, name calling, word games, and even body language used to trip up the other person will not move the conversation forward, and you could be stuck in the cycle until someone walks away. These techniques are used when someone wants to "win" the argument. However, this isn't about winners and losers. This is about understanding each other, working together, and building a stronger team to serve our patients.

3. Breathe

We've all found ourselves holding our breath in tense situations. This only stresses your body more. Intentionally slowing down your breathing will help relax your mind and release defensiveness. Take full breaths in and out through your nose while the other person is speaking. If the other person notices your intentional breathing, let him or her know you are using this technique to help you remain calm and to reduce your defensiveness. The more the other person believes you are truly "in" the conversation, the more opportunity you have for an effective two-way dialogue.

4. Remove the ego

This is hard because we all have feelings. We have past hurts that affect how we react to situations, independent of what's actually going on. But there it is -- that visceral reaction that causes us to react in a way that has nothing to do with the current discussion. All of a sudden, you are hearing your old clinic instructor tell you that you aren't doing it right, when what's really happening is someone is simply trying to understand a new process.

Recognize that it takes courage for the other person to talk to you about a difficult topic. Even if the exchange is about something you have done, realize that it is about a specific situation, not an assault on your character or skill.

5. Slow down

Rome wasn't built in a day, and big hurts won't be solved in a quick chat.

If you find yourself becoming defensive and you can't dial it back, ask the other person for a break. You could say, "I truly appreciate you taking the time to talk to me. I need five minutes to collect my thoughts. It is important to me to truly hear what you are saying, but I find myself becoming defensive and that is not where I want this conversation to go."

If you can go for a quick walk, that's an excellent way to help you clear your head and recenter yourself.

6. Respond

Wait for your turn, remember you are taking notes, and let the other person say all he or she needs to say. After that, it's your turn to respond.

First, thank the other person for taking the time to have this difficult conversation. Strive to keep what you say back in the first person. Instead of "You are accusing me of not getting the right PPE," try this: "I hear concern about what PPE we will have when the office opens." Ask questions about what you need clarification on, but remember this isn't a deposition. This is simply an opportunity to ensure you understand. Let the other person know you have heard him or her, you will continue to think about all that has been said, and, if anything else comes up, that you are available to revisit this again.

Listening takes practice. Listening to understand without defense will take even more. But, if we truly take the time to recognize each other's unique perspectives, fears, obstacles, and pressures, we can find a way forward.

Conflict is not only a catalyst for understanding, it's also a vehicle for both you and the relationship to grow. How amazing would it be if we can harness this so-called feud and use it as a time for true growth within our profession?

We are all caregivers. Let's use this time to care for one another.

Amanda Hill, RDH, BSDH, currently practices part-time clinically and is an industry educator for the nation's largest dental job board, DentalPost.net. She also hosts a podcast on the Dental Podcast Network.

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


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