How emotional intelligence can improve your happiness in the dental practice
The latest buzzword in personal development is mindset. We’re told to be mindful, to be aware and to be present ... which all sounds great until we get to the office Monday morning and the problem we had on Friday is still there. After the monotony of similar problems on a different day, we have to ask ourselves: What really needs to change—our environment, or us?
As dental practitioners, stress is a difficult habit to retrain, because we’re constantly striving to provide the perfect service in the ideal practice and accept it. This is exhausting! As a private practice dentist and, now, social and emotional intelligence coach, I have found myself—and my clients—battling constant challenges as both a practice owner and a dentist. However, by strengthening our emotional intelligence skills, or “EQ,” we can better cope and handle the stressors of practice ownership. Keep reading to find out how.
Situation #1: Striving to be perfect 100 percent of the time
“That extraction wasn’t as easy as I thought it would be; I can’t believe I broke off
the crown and spent all that time digging out those roots, adding bone and suturing.
I ran late afterward, and I should’ve known better before I attempted that tooth.
I’m not going to do any more extractions like this.”
This happens to all of us! Sometimes we can misjudge a case. Does that one lapse in judgment define our entire skill set? Of course not. But we often expect every case, every root canal and every procedure to go perfectly, all the time. Perfectionism may be accentuated in dental school, but it’s hardly a reality in the day-to-day production of dentistry. Things happen all the time that veer off plan; it’s what we do about it that helps us grow with every case. Messing up is part of learning to get better!
It’s important to plan, but berating ourselves for being human, of all things, is counterproductive. Take a thoughtful eye of reflection after the procedure, think about what you could’ve done differently and chalk it up to a lesson learned. Once the misjudgment is made, take the time to reflect on how you’ll handle the situation differently the next time, and have an idea on how to approach a similar situation more effectively. After all, it’s worth making a mistake if we learn from it.
Situation #2: Getting frustrated at what we can’t control
“I’m running behind again. It’s not my fault that Mrs. Jones was late to her appointment again, after multiple warnings. My front desk didn’t even tell me that she was going to be late! I mean, did she even call?!”
OK, this is a very frustrating experience, and more common than we might think. Running late, for many dentists, often feels like a poor reflection of who we are and what we’ve built. Even though we know it’s usually out of our control or a weak point in our practice systems, we often let that one patient ruin our moods for the whole day. This can make us counterproductive even after the fact.
What do you do? Accept what you can’t control first: Could you have made Mrs. Jones show up earlier? Unless it was a matter of habitual retraining, probably not. As far as the front desk not telling you, the better question is, “Why didn’t they?” Were they afraid of your reaction? Did they have a system to remind the habitually late Mrs.?Jones to be on time? If they were afraid of the reaction, then we need to take a step back and examine the space we’re creating for employees to come to us with issues like this. When an employee comes to us with a problem, how do we address her? Do we blow her off, get angry at her or become hostile? Or do we smile, encourage her to speak about the issue and come up with a creative solution together? Employees will be more forthcoming if they feel like they are in a nonjudgmental environment. If we’re constantly breathing down their necks instead of empowering them and giving them the tools to handle those situations, they won’t be able to meet our expectations of knowing what to do.
Situation #3: Staff communication issues and expectations
“I’ve told my assistant multiple times to be ready for that root canal procedure, but she keeps forgetting things in the setup! On top of that, today she told me we were on the last box of gloves! How many times do I have to tell her these things?”
Another situation: “I feel like my staff doesn’t listen to me; I do my best to explain things and I feel like no one is listening. I’d told my front desk how to handle Mrs. Jones when she answered the phone, but she keeps coming to me to resolve the issue. I don’t know why she can’t get it together!”
Or: “My staff never seems motivated to come up with ideas and I feel like I’m constantly the only one trying to make things work! How do I motivate them to solve problems I know they have the answers to?”
Ever been in any of the above situations? Of course you have! Navigating expectations is tough; I’ve worked with many dentists who feel as if they’re bad bosses when their staff doesn’t do as they say. Does that mean as providers we are unsuccessful bosses? Of course not. But if we expect our staff to be infallible, we have two options: Either accept that mistakes happen or connect with staff members to help retrain how they process your directions.
As dental providers and leaders, we can have an approach that’s often very direct and sometimes harsh. However, being told and being asked are two different things. Body language and active listening are the keys to a connection based on empathy. The same skills that we’ll use with Mrs. Jones in Situation #4—listening, acknowledging, and offering a solution—can be used with our staff. So if a staff member comes to you frustrated, the last thing to do is brush them off with barely a glance. Stop what you’re doing, really listen, acknowledge their frustration and, if necessary, offer a solution. Often, staff members are just frustrated about uncontrollable issues in the office and need to feel heard. When they do, they connect with you and your management and feel like you’re on their side. After all, we need our team members to be on our side to be effective, but they’ll invest in change only if they feel heard themselves. As Laura Belsten, the founder of the Institute for Social + Emotional Intelligence, says, “People join organizations and leave bosses,” which boils down to how we communicate.
It’s important to plan, but berating ourselves
for being human, of all things, is counterproductive.
Situation #4: Dealing with and communicating about the unexpected
“Mrs. Jones was upset that the filling today turned into a root canal. I mean, I didn’t place that decay there, so what did she expect when I told her it could happen? She was very huffy to my assistant and snapped at my front desk when it came time to pay. We were just trying to help her!”
This is a situation many of us have run into. We set ourselves up with the expectation that we cannot fail, which is frankly unrealistic. But this does happen! As we discussed earlier, sometimes things happen out of our control, but how do we then handle Mrs. Jones’ disappointment? I’ve found the most effective tool to use is empathetic listening. Usually we would hear from this patient, “I can’t believe this turned into a root canal!” In error, some may assume it is a financial issue, but many times it’s about the change that the patient didn’t anticipate.
You can respond by saying, “I understand it’s disappointing that this tooth needed a root canal, Mrs. Jones, and that this ended up being deeper than what we had anticipated. I know that can be frustrating”—(reflecting the emotion first)—“but I’m relieved that we could help you out today and avoid an extra visit, because I know you’re so busy with Mary’s wedding coming up” (offering a solution after the reflection of emotion).
The reason this EQ tool is so powerful is because it connects based on the emotion, to allow for openness to the advice we offer. Many times we go straight to the solution, instead of acknowledging the emotion involved. If the staff members, such as the assistant and front desk, had also reflected the emotion, Mrs. Jones would have felt heard and acknowledged, and would appreciate the emotional connection. What would have been a rough experience can now be an example of how we care about her well-being.
Situation #5: Becoming overwhelmed, stressed and burned out
“I’m constantly thinking about the office even when I’m not there! Between my staff not listening, patients constantly demanding things, and me never having enough time to run the business, I can’t relax at all with my family. I feel like I’m stuck.”
Believe it or not, one of the most common things I hear from dental practice owners is that they struggle with the separation of business and home. This issue is multifaceted but can be broken down into a few key components. When we wrap our entire being on the success of the office, we’re setting ourselves up for unhappiness.
The dental practice is one thing, not our everything, so we need to ask ourselves human questions. Who are we? What are we passionate about? What are our values and goals? What do we do outside of the office? Do we have any nongoal-oriented activities? How do we cultivate creativity and mindset care?
When we start working on the skills of self-awareness—identifying how we’re feeling at the time we’re feeling it—we can start to subside the avalanche of emotions that lead to stress and burnout. Tracking our emotions is the first step to doing this. After all, we diagnose patients; why wouldn’t we diagnose ourselves? Once we do this, we can introspectively look at why: Why did we get angry at that staff member like that? Why were we frustrated that Mrs. Jones asked that question again? How many things negatively charge us that we cannot control? Tracking these habits can provide so much clarity.
In addition, cultivating habits outside of dentistry to ease our minds is also vital. Many of us are instinctively creative—hello, dental skills!—but find ourselves not making enough time for recreation after owning practices. The skill of creative problem solving can help with many problems that come up within the day-to-day of the business. So, that guitar playing, doodling or gardening habit that you thought was useless can actually help strengthen your skills.
Also, focusing on your values and non-negotiables— like your family, friends and relationships outside of the practice—can give you the much-needed support many of us need to reset our mindsets when we need it. Waiting until our minds are overwhelmed is the least productive way to tackle issues, no matter how big or small. Focusing on ourselves, making sure we’re taking care of our minds the way we take care of our bodies and harboring relationships are the basis of the strength needed to face the challenges of practice ownership. After all, without a good foundation, we can’t build greatness, and our mind is the most valuable asset we have in dental practice ownership.