How good are your people skills?

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people skills
Photos: Viacheslav Iakobchuk – 123RF

It doesn’t matter how competent a dentist you are, patients will think twice about returning to your practice if they feel uncomfortable or offended because your people skills aren’t up to scratch. By Kathy Graham  

To varying degrees, people skills matter whatever you do, but if you’re a dentist, even more so when you consider the nature of the job. It’s pretty intimate—you peer inside mouths for a living—and none of your patients particularly want to be there. “Compared to other areas of work, I would say they are even more important,” says Phillip Palmer of Prime Practice. “People are coming to you in a highly stressed state, and it’s up to you to alleviate that stress.” How well you do this depends on your ability to communicate, form and maintain relationships, problem solve and so on. “If I had to use another term, I’d say it’s ‘emotional intelligence’,” says Palmer. “There are about 27 different paths that we assess coming to emotional intelligence,” he adds. “But even if you were missing only one, I dare say that would be enough to put people off.”

Erica King, founder of ReFocused Dental, says that without people skills, dentists can often be at cross purposes with their patients. “They assume that the patient understands what they’re talking about, that they want a certain type of dentistry. They make inappropriate and incorrect assumptions because their people skills don’t allow them to slowly build that rapport. The classic scenario is when the dentist says to the patient they’ve just met ‘oh, you need $10,000 of treatment’. You can practically hear the patient running screaming out the front door.”

Because patients are savvy, they’ve got choice and they’re not going to put up with poor communication. They speak with their feet. If they’re kept waiting, spoken to abruptly, ignored, they’re not going to stick around.

Erica king, ReFocused Dental

Indeed, poor patient retention as well as minimal patient referrals are very clear signs your people skills may be a little off. “Because patients are savvy, they’ve got choice and they’re not going to put up with poor communication,” says King. “They speak with their feet. If they’re kept waiting, spoken to abruptly, ignored, they’re not going to stick around.”

Both Palmer and King agree that dentistry doesn’t generally attract ‘life of the party’ types. As Palmer says, “People go into dentistry because their marks were sufficiently good in maths and science.” King says she’s performed countless psychological tests of dentists over the past 30 years, and found them to be “very didactic, black and white, very focused on the task, not really focused on the person. They don’t naturally have people skills,” she concludes. Moreover, their efforts to “try to be something they’re not often just come out wrong.” 

It’s actually much easier, she says, for dentists to identify their strengths and weakness and then recruit accordingly. “I’ve had clients who literally won’t say anything to the patient. The team will do all the communicating and people stuff. Whereas the dentist can put a patient at ease by being confident and focused on clinically providing the best quality care.” 

If you can’t form a relationship with your patients, at least it’d be good if your receptionist or dental nurse had those skills.”

Phillip Palmer, Prime Practice

“I think there’s something in that,” concurs King, “in that, if you can’t form a relationship with your patients, at least it’d be good if your receptionist or dental nurse had those skills. But you know, when I think of my dentist, I don’t think ‘jeez, he’s got a wonderful receptionist’. I do think, as a general rule, patients would like to like their dentist.”

The good news is, people skills can be learnt although as King says, “it’s hard work, you’ve got to be committed and it’s not going to happen overnight. Because I can’t change what’s innately in me.” The analogy she uses is suddenly having to write with your left hand if you’ve been right-handed your whole life. “It doesn’t mean I can’t do it, but it does take conscious, deliberate and consistent commitment”—whether it’s practising using a friendlier tone to greet patients, or politely asking about their work/family/recent holiday. “I can give you a well-known saying,” says Palmer. “If you want to be interesting to others, be interested in others.”

Perhaps it’s not surprising given the deficit being discussed, but many still fail to appreciate just how critical such skills are to one’s success. “You almost have to show them certain measurements and then ask, ‘what do you think’?” says Palmer. “Sure, it sometimes happens that people recognise ‘I’m too cold’, ‘I’m too rigid’. But most people don’t have that awareness; they think they’re okay.” Or worse, says King, they think, “That’s for somebody else, I’m a dentist. I put my shingle on the door and they will come. If they don’t like me, bad luck’.”

Both firmly believe that interpersonal skills—and these are no less crucial in your daily interactions with work colleagues—should form part of every dental student’s education. 

Yet, according to Palmer, dental schools are all about “turning out clinicians, not successful business people”. It doesn’t help either that resources are stretched.  “I’ve had conversations with a couple of deans who seem interested but in the end they all say they have other more important competing demands.”

Nevertheless, the world is starting to recognise that personability matters. “I spoke to the dean of a business school in the US,” recalls Palmer. “I said, ‘can you tell me who’s going to be successful in your business school before they graduate,’ and she said, ‘yes, and it’s not the top student, it’s the one who has people skills. The people with people skills end up hiring the top students to work for them.’ When I heard that, I realised this goes across the board. It’s not just in dentistry.”  

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