Communication is the skill upon which most relationships are built and sustained. This is especially true in our profession. It’s valuable for us to know how to communicate well with our patients, colleagues, superiors, and mentees to create an environment in which everyone thrives, and our services are delivered to the highest quality. I feel fortunate to have had experiences at a young age which improved my communication skills.
I started working in my dad’s newsagents at nine years old. It was situated in the outskirts of Glasgow in a working-class town, and in spite of the frequent chill in the shop due to the lack of heating, I have many fond memories working there. People in the locality knew my father well because he had owned the shop for decades, and I was there as his little helper. Customers often came in and noticed the little boy behind the counter, and they would strike up a conversation. What’s your name? How old are you? What school do you go to? What do you want to be when you grow up? What football team do you support? Sometimes, they would tell my father jokingly that it’s good I don’t look anything like him.
I was a shy kid, but as I continued working there and engaging with customers, I learned to speak up. It soon became normal for me to chat to strangers regularly, especially during the Christmas season when the shop was at its busiest.
I worked there until I was around fifteen years old, after which I landed my first official job at KFC (Kentucky Fried Chicken). Working in a team and dealing with different people wasn’t new to me at that point because of my experiences in my dad's shop.
I was not directly taught a great deal about communicating with patients during my time in dental school. It was in the years I studied medicine that I honed and refined my skills during communication classes where I would practice medical consultations with actors.
At that time, I thought that it was nonsense. Speaking to an actor? What could that accomplish? But it constituted a huge part of our yearly assessments, so I made sure to do well in it.
I realised its importance later on and how much this training had helped me. All of us know how to communicate, but not all of us know how to communicate well to achieve certain results.
In dentistry, we aim for specific results like getting a patient to accept treatment or to adhere to our professional advice. While our intentions are good and clear to us, poor communication skills decrease the likelihood of gaining a patient’s cooperation.
Patients are not mind-readers; they can only respond to what you say and what you show through body language. If you use both to your advantage, they’ll trust you and you can provide successful treatments.
Building trust with patients, I believe, is the most important thing.
Trust is not only integral with patients. Your communication skills will affect your relationship with everyone in your profession, especially if you are part of a bigger team in the practice. You have the administration staff, dental nursing staff, seniors, bosses, and even mentees. You need to put a lot of thought into how you are coming across in terms of words and actions.
Communication is the tool you use to build and develop a connection with people. The tricky part about this may be the fact that your approach changes depending on who is in front of you. It’s unlikely that you will talk to your boss the way you talk to your colleague. The way you show respect to the former won’t be exactly the same way you will show respect to the latter.
Similarly, you will want to show consideration to both mentees and patients, but the focus of one would be on learning, while the other, on trust and consent. These nuances call for the ability to know what subtle differences in tone, word choice, and body language can achieve.
After all, effective communication is not dependent on how you perceive yourself, but on how the other person perceives you. That’s what defines a good communicator.