The worst feedback I ever got from a dentist in my first year, was ‘Rosie, you don’t talk enough’
The best feedback I ever received from a dentist, was 3 years later; ‘Rosie, you have the best patient communication skills I’ve come across, you can really talk about anything!’
This example is a testament to self reflection, continuing professional development and good practice.
So, there was a gap in my skill set, and this just would not do! I considered why this was true of myself, and I put it down to a lack of confidence, an introverted personality and inexperience. To be honest, I remember thinking, ‘Oh I didn’t even realise I needed to talk that much?!’ I was focused on cross infection, notes, stocking up etc etc. and I didn’t realise I was neglecting one of my main responsibilities: patient focus and care. I thought I was doing okay, I mean, the patient was alive. But that dentist wanted more than just a living patient (honestly! so demanding). She wanted a calm, welcomed, and entertained patient whilst she reviewed notes and xrays, or waited for LA to take effect. So according to this prescription, I just started talking, about anything.
But be warned, it takes practice and not all patients are gifted in holding a conversation, so sometimes you have to do most of the work.
There’s no secret course you can take to get better at filling these awkward silences with strangers, you just have to put it into practice. It may take some time but if you persevere, you’ll be so good at talking! People will wish you would just stop!
Most dentists like you to speak with patients to help ease any anxiety and allow them to focus on diagnosis and treatment. I have found that it builds a rapport, not just fills a silence; you get to learn about the patients, they get to learn about you and they have a more pleasant experience overall. I’ve had some great feedback after developing in this area from patients and dentists. It has made my working day so much more enjoyable too. I have more genuine reasons to smile and laugh and it allows me to directly contribute more to that patient’s experience.
Here are my chatting tips to get you started or improve your already great chat game:
Be confident – you don’t need to be loud or over the top, but a quiet confidence will instantly make this possible stranger want to engage.
A great little tip for appearing confident is to let your hands and body move freely. When you use gestures and body movements as you speak, you come across a lot more confident than if you were to be super still. Also, research has shown having your hands visible, makes you instantly more trustworthy. This is a big factor for our patients, especially if they have never seen you before.
Here’s a link to a great YouTube video I learnt this from: (You might notice that the speaker does not stop moving her hands, she’s a wizard!!)
Smile – don’t be scary though, only use a genuine smile when you would naturally. And you can always use your eyes to ‘smize’ like Tyra Banks says!
Make eye contact – as in any social interaction, avoiding eye contact is a sign of distrust. Make natural, friendly eye contact when talking and remember to blink!
Let your personality shine – develop your own style whilst remaining professional. If the conversation leads to, and you are happy, you can share your interests and personal stories with the patient. It helps you become more human and relatable in their eyes.
Have a work persona – I’m not at all shy but I do gain more energy alone. So at work, I tend to play a bit more of a chatty character. At home, and with friends, I’m a lot quieter. Developing a work persona, sets your intentions for the day, so you can remain consistent with patients and colleagues alike. Then I go home..and recharge with more silent escapades like reading.
Stay away from taboo topics-politics, religion, brexit, football (I just don’t like that one) avoid any subjects that can get you caught into giving personal opinions. Keep the conversation light and fun.
Be tactful and genuine – like in any good conversation, don’t just talk willy nilly. React to what the patient says and go with their flow. If a patient tells you he lost his wife, take time to react genuinely, gauge how many follow up questions they feel comfortable with answering and then try and give them a positive outlook and then take their mind off it. (never skate over something this personal, it may take practice to feel comfortable in this situation, but it will come, if the patient is sharing with you, let them and offer sincere replies)
Examples of conversation Starting phrases:
‘Busy day today?’ – I call this the taxi driver special but it just opens up the conversation so I know to ask about work or not. (Not everybody works due to individual circumstances, and sometimes making wrong assumptions can lead to an awkward exchange) I learnt this the hard way when I asked an 16 year old soldier if he was going to see his family at Christmas, but he had joined the army from a children’s home. I learnt to ask open questions instead like ‘what are you doing for Christmas?’
‘What are you doing for the rest of the day?’
If a patient is wearing a company sweatshirt or piece of clothing, you could ask them where they work.
I do these kind of things so often because all the pleasant and memorable medical appointments I’ve had, the doctor or nurse has asked me something not related to the appointment and it instantly put me at ease. It seemed they genuinely were interested and for one little moment you can forget why you are there. I believe that’s what sets turns a routine appointment into a great experience.
Examples of Reaction phrases:
(sometimes a patient can bring up a topic that you might not know much about or have much interest in. So the following are some phrases to keep the conversation ticking along, getting the patient to do most of the work)
‘That must be interesting!’ – this skips out of having to think of a direct questions but let’s the patient continue.
‘Id love to be able to do something like that’ – you can’t be interested in everything, but you can sure fake it for the team
‘Wow, I didn’t know that’ – let the patient become the expert, most likely they will want to show their knowledge, mission complete!
Plus all the positive little nuggets you can offer to bolster a patient:
‘That’s great’ , ‘you must be really good then’ , ‘how impressive!’
Tips for children:
You wouldn’t always ask your 6 year old patient how the weather is, so you could instead, start a conversation about what they are wearing or about their toys, or teddies that they bring for comfort. (Limit this to 1 comment about their appearance, such as their hairstyle or a character on their tshirt – you dont want the parent to think you are excessively oggling their child!)
A child with a teddy – you could say ‘wow who’s this? Are they getting their teeth checked too?’ (directed at the teddy) I usually ask to take the teddy ( if the child allows me) and pretend it’s whispering something to me. To a child, this is pure magic, never underestimate these kind of seemingly, simple gestures.
‘Oh I like your T-shirt, do you like unicorns?!’ (I remember one patient just said ‘no’) this usually works better with sports jerseys or on small children! Unicorns are so last year!!
If a child will not talk with me, I usually say ‘oh you arent talking to me today? Now I am going to be upset’ by the end of the appointment, I can usually get one word or if I even get a smile, I’ll finish it off with ‘are you my friend now?’ Mostly it’s a yes!
So there you go! My tips and tricks for making conversation with patients. I hope you find something useful here. Next time, I’m going to be talking about dealing with difficult patients as a dental Nurse.
Apprentice to Head Dental Nurse? Yes it sounds so surreal to me too! Here is my story by Emily Grace Birkin.
How it started?
I started off as a young 18 year old apprentice not knowing what career path to take after my A-Levels. I remember browsing the internet looking for careers, and what path to take as I approached the end of my final year of A-levels. When I applied for a social work course at university, my application was unfortunately declined. I was left...