We need to talk: effective communication

effective communication

Some dental practice partnerships are ruined when small issues are left to fester into catastrophic problems. Taking the time to talk it out, however, can make the world of difference. By John Burfitt

The topic of emotional intelligence—the strategy of handling one’s emotions and interpersonal relationships judiciously —has been getting plenty of exposure in recent times, especially in terms of the best way to deal and engage with patients, and ensure they keep coming back for more.

While much of that attention has been on looking out at the people who come into the practice, there is just as much need to look within at the team already in there, and how they communicate with each other.

Take, for example, the tale of the three-partner dental practice where the trio, who had gone through university together, had not spoken to each other for a decade, and yet continued to work together for the sake of the business.

Or the duo partnership that had been swimming along nicely for years, until one of the partners allowed his new wife to run riot as she oversaw a dramatic new interior design scheme for the clinic. Six months later, the only talking the formerly good partners were doing was through lawyers.

“And there are many, many more stories like those when business partnerships have gone wrong, and no one knows what to do about it,” consultant Dr Phillip Palmer of Prime Practice says.

“It often comes down to one person has this thing in their head that the other has done or is trying to do that is perceived as not fair, and then it’s made worse by not talking about it. From there, it just spirals.”

Dr Palmer then adds dryly, “Often, dentists can be poor communicators. Most dentists don’t spend enough time making sure their relationships are good with their business partners—and that is paramount.”

Dr Alex Holden is a lecturer in Dental Ethics, Law and Professionalism at the University of Sydney’s Faculty of Dentistry. He explains that while the business side of dentistry has been given more focus with students in recent years, more attention needs to be paid on effective communication among colleagues.

“I have worked in too many practices where little bits of resentments are let run, and ruin what had been a great working relationship.”—Dr Rachel Mascord, partner, Dentessence, Sydney

“We’re taught how to communicate with patients, but we don’t focus as much on how to deal with problems with each other—and most of us will come across that at some point,” Dr Holden says.

“Communication is the key when there are differences of opinion. Compromise and a willingness to negotiate are just as important, as is recognising when something has changed and the former terms of trade may no longer be so suitable.

“Whatever it is, these are points that need to be discussed as quickly and honestly as possible. You sort nothing out by shutting down and retreating to your own corners, waiting for the other person to make the first move.”

When running a business that could be turning over hundreds of thousands or even millions in annual revenue, it’s essential that all roles within the practice are clearly defined, advises Melbourne business coach Louise Davis of Louise Davis Consulting.

The clearer the lines of responsibility between partners in the first place, Davis advises, the less chance for issues to arise as the partnership develops.

“At the beginning, you should never adopt an attitude of, ‘we’re friends; we’ll get through everything, thick and thin’. That’s where problems can stem from,” she says. “You are in business, so there has to be a maturity in the approach to the obligations and responsibilities that go beyond friendships, so each person knows what has to be done and what is expected. There also must be procedures in place so when things are less than perfect, everyone knows what to do about it as it’s already a part of the bigger plan.”

Which is the approach longtime friends Drs Rachel Mascord and Joanna Wyzsynski adopted earlier this year when they went into business together. The pair entered a partnership at Sydney’s Dentessence clinic, with existing partner Dr Helen Zongas.

“I always go back to the line, ‘Relationships in personal or business contexts evolve or devolve, one conversation at a time.’ It’s the value of having regular conversations to address whatever is going on, rather than avoiding the issues for the sake of maintaining friendships.”—Louise Davis, Louise Davis Consulting

Dr Mascord, who has acted as career mentor to Dr Wyzsynski since her teenage years, set out rules about what they both needed to do when things do not go to plan.

“I have worked in too many practices where little bits of resentments are let run, and ruin what had been a great working relationship,” Dr Mascord says.

“Joanna and I have taken the approach of checking in with each other, making sure we are on the same page and discussing what is working in the practice and what’s not, and what we can do about it.

“We communicate well and you have to approach the practice relationship with a sense of equanimity, nothing less than respect and remembering to be fair. It’s always got to be about putting your ego to one side to see the bigger picture in perspective.”

The simplicity of regular discussions about any business issues—be it on a weekly, monthly or quarterly basis—should never be underestimated, adds Louise Davis.

“It again comes down to having that maturity of being able to talk about those issues causing a level of heightened emotions,” she says. Davis then refers to the Susan Scott book, Fierce Conversations. “I always go back to the line, ‘Relationships in personal or business contexts evolve or devolve, one conversation at a time’,” Davis says. “It’s the value of having regular conversations to address whatever is going on, rather than avoiding the issues for the sake of maintaining friendships.”

Which is all very well and good, but there are cases where the time for talking has passed and professional help becomes essential. Bringing in a mediator to resolve a situation and establish better procedures for the future can be, adds Dr Phillip Palmer, a far less costly exercise than calling in the lawyers to split a partnership.

“When you both acknowledge what the problem is but you can’t get beyond it, act on that as soon as possible, to address it so it still can be resolved,” he says.

“An outside person can see things far more clearly about what’s going on, and can identify the many options on how to fix it, than the people who actually caused the issue.”

Dr Palmer has acted as a mediator in similar scenarios, and says when the various partners finally express their views on the causes of the issues that have created chaos, most of that comes down to poor communication.

“Once you get people talking in a fair way to each other, it is a step toward sorting it all out,” he says.

“It also might be the time to do some tough evaluation of yourself and the way you work. It’s not about laying blame, but about taking responsibility so everyone can work together into the future. It gives the relationship—and the practice—a far better chance of success.”

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