President Theodore Roosevelt said, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” There’s a lot of truth to this statement. It’s a quote I cherish to this day, and one I embraced early in my dental career. For me, it meant that before I could share dental information with my patients, two things needed to happen. One, I needed to have a trusting relationship with them, and two, my patients needed to have a trusting relationship with me. The way I earned my patients’ trust was with good communication! It was something I never learned in dental school; It was something I had to learn and study on my own.
After spending four years at Georgetown University School of Dentistry and three years as a Navy dentist, I had developed some decent clinical skills. My first “real job” was as an associate for a dentist who, at that time, was in his mid 50s. He had a thriving practice and did mostly quadrant dentistry. His schedule was “eloquently engineered,” with his longer appointments scheduled in the morning. He practiced in the same location for over 25 years and had an excellent reputation in his community. His equipment was modern, and his office building and office décor was updated and beautiful. As a dentist, he was technically excellent, and his patients loved him. I would describe him as a beautiful, caring and charismatic person. He was a masterful communicator, and I was always amazed how his patients predictably said “yes” to his treatment recommendations. I was fortunate to have had the opportunity to work with someone as talented and gifted as him.
So, here I was working in this awesome practice with this great dentist. On the upside, I had good technical skills thanks to my dental school education and my Navy training. On the downside, after just a few months of working, it became clear to others that I had no clue how to talk with patients. The reason for this problem was two-fold. One, I had received no formal training in communication, and two, at that time, I had an overinflated ego. I was very good at telling others what they needed to do, and all my conversations were one-way. I rarely asked patients for their input. And to make matters worse, I embraced the Nike motto: “Just do it.” If you asked others, they would probably say that I talked way too much and was a poor listener. As a result, patients continually rejected my treatment recommendations. In my blind state, and despite the constant rejection, I still couldn’t see the error of my ways. I assumed that the reason patients said “no” to me was due to my younger age. I assumed the reason they said “yes” to the senior dentist was because he was older and had more experience than me. In actuality, the patients did like him better, but not because of his age or experience. They liked him better because they knew that he cared both about their teeth and about them as individuals.
How did things turn around for me? The senior dentist, at the end of a workday, called me into his office and told me point blank, “Rob, you are a ‘turn-off’ to your patients. You never ask them any questions, you’re conceited, you come at them like a speeding bullet and you have no clue how to connect.” He went on to say, “Frankly, I’m fed up with your self-righteous attitude and if things don’t change, I’m going to have to let you go.” Not only did his words get my attention, they caught me by surprise. In a flash, my ego was deflated, and the last thing I wanted to do was to leave his practice. I respected him, opened my ears, and in my state of shock, carefully listened to what he had to say.
During our conversation, he lovingly gave me many examples of my poor communication skills. He talked about how I never asked questions, how I never made eye contact with the patients, and that in some instances, I’d walk out of the treatment room while a patient was talking. All of his examples were vivid and specific, and I knew he spoke the truth. How could I have been so foolish thinking that I was a good communicator? How could I have been so blind to the fact that I was a poor listener and lacked compassion. In my mind, I thought that just being a “good technical dentist” was all I needed to do to be successful. I was ignorant about the importance of communication and connecting with other people. Hearing those words from the senior dentist, as difficult as they were, changed my life. I was grateful he didn’t fire me on the spot.
Instead, he helped me by sending me to The Dale Carnegie Course to get some “people skills” training. The course was 14-weeks long and was life-changing. By the end of it, I was able to see the importance of putting the needs of others before my own. I learned about the importance of listening and asking great questions as a way to get to know someone and establish trust. This course was the initial reason I became a lifelong student of communication.
With regards to treating patients, I came to realize that before I could tell a patient about their dental needs, I first needed to earn their trust. With new patients, I did that by first speaking with them in a consultation room. During this initial meeting, I’d ask them questions to discover their needs and fears, and to talk about their previous dental experiences. I’d ask them about their desires and then carefully listen to their answers. Our initial meeting was always a dialogue, one where the patient did most of the talking and I did most of the listening. Next, I examined their mouth. During the examination of their teeth, gums, jaws and bite, I involved them by explaining each step. I talked with them using patient-friendly terms, took photos with the intra-oral camera, and frequently checked in, asking them if they had any questions. At a separate “summary of findings” visit, I’d present the treatment recommendations to them in a way they understood, in a way that addressed their needs and their concerns.
Once I started to do things this way, my patient acceptance skyrocketed, my production increased and so did my happiness. After spending three years as an associate, I decided to move on and bought an existing solo private practice. I spent the next 28 years loving dentistry, working with great patients and a great team, and grateful that I had learned the importance of good communication early in my career.
As a newly practicing dentist or one who will soon be entering private or corporate practice, I’d like to leave you with a few pearls for a successful career. First, commit to excellence in both your technical skills and communication skills. As far as learning how to be a better communicator, start by reading books like The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey or How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie. To learn more about yourself and how to better connect with people, I recommend you look into the DISC Personality Assessment system. Another suggestion is to consider joining your local Toastmasters club. Toastmasters is a non-profit organization that can help you improve your presentation and leadership skills. It’s affordable, fun, and they have a great mentoring program. Lastly, consider hiring an outside coach or consultant as a way to help you perfect your “people” skills, build your team and improve your practice. Remember that first and foremost, dentistry is a people business. Remember, there is a person attached to that tooth, each one unique, each one with their own set of fears, desires and goals for their mouth. Always strive for excellence in both your technical skills and your communication skills. Remember that dental school taught you your “hand skills” and that it’s up to you to develop your “heart skills.” Don’t wait for a wake-up call like I did. Seek additional training early and always remember that people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. When you do, you’ll have a career that is both spiritually and financially rewarding.