Putting your communication skills to the test

Sarah Ide explains how effective communication can help you through challenging situations during your early years in dental practice.

Sarah Ide explains the many examples of how effective communication can help you through challenging situations you face during your early years in dental practice.

Working with new colleagues 

Effective communication with the rest of the dental team is vital to establishing a good professional relationship where you can deliver the best possible patient care. 

Bear in mind that communication is a two-way process, so make every effort to be approachable and open. This will help colleagues feel more comfortable discussing anything about a patient’s care with you. 

As a new member of the team, you won’t be as familiar with practice protocols and systems. So, listening is as important as getting your points across. 

Have a clear understanding of what you want to achieve and how it’ll be done before discussing tasks with others. That way, you can pass on all relevant information. Seek clarification promptly if you are unsure about what you are being asked to do. 

Breaking bad news

From explaining that there is a long wait to see an orthodontist to telling a new patient that they need several fillings, breaking bad news isn’t easy.

However, it is essential to be truthful and empathetic if you are to retain patients’ trust. 

If someone feels they’ve been misled about waiting times or the chances of a successful outcome, they’re likely to feel aggrieved and disappointed. 

A good way to open potentially difficult conversations is by acknowledging that what you are about to say may be upsetting or frustrating, rather than trying to make light of the situation, which might seem insensitive. 

Set out the facts in non-technical language, avoiding ambiguous terms such as ‘needs a bit of work’ and explain the patient’s options. 

In many cases, the patient will be stressed or anxious and may not take in everything you are saying. Ask them if they have understood and give them the opportunity to ask questions. 

A difficult consultation

Most of your patients will be a pleasure to treat, but there will inevitably be some that are more challenging.

These consultations may not be as enjoyable, but it is important to remain calm and professional. 

Your mindset is really important here. Rather than putting a patient in a box marked ‘difficult’, try to think of things from their perspective. 

They might be in pain, anxious, tired or struggling with other things in their lives. So listen carefully to what they say, acknowledge their points and try to find common ground. 

Avoid confrontational responses or defensive facial expressions and body language (frowns, crossed arms etc) and don’t encroach on the patient’s personal space.

If a patient demands a particular treatment which you don’t believe to be clinically indicated, you aren’t obliged to provide it, but explain your reasons.

Try to engage them in a discussion about what they want to achieve and set out their options so you can work towards a solution. 

Saying sorry

If something goes wrong, the GDC expects you to tell patients immediately in a way they can understand and apologise. You should make clear what it means for them in the short and long term and offer support or an appropriate remedy. 

Some dental professionals worry that an apology amounts to an admission of liability that could come back to bite them if there is a claim, but this is a misconception.

In fact, saying sorry is not an admission of legal liability and can help rebuild trust with the patient.

To be meaningful, an apology needs to be sincere and not delivered in defensive language. 

Speak as you would in a natural conversation, in the first person. ‘I am very sorry that this happened’ sounds better than, ‘the practice regrets…’

Think about body language, too. Saying the right words while standing over the patient or facing away from them may not seem like an apology at all. 

Give the patient time to process what you have said and ask questions.

Remember to keep good records of the discussions you have with the patient.

Finally, remember that no one is born a perfect communicator. Every dental professional will wince at the memory of consultations that didn’t go well. The most important thing is that you are willing to reflect on difficult encounters, learn from them and try to improve communication for next time. 

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