Resolving Conflict in Dental Offices

by Ann-Marie C. DePalma, RDH, MED, FADIA, FAADH

A major stressor in any dental practice is unresolved conflict. One of the definitions of conflict from the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary is "A mental struggle resulting from incompatible or opposing needs, drives, wishes or demands."

Facing issues head on is often difficult for many dental teams. But leaving problems unresolved can cause anxiety, negativity, and anger between team members. Often patients can sense these problems, and they can interfere in the total patient experience. Everyone deserves to have their needs met and issues heard. When handled properly, conflict can motivate a team toward positive growth and change. Conflict doesn't have to be negative; in fact, positive conflict can be useful when healthy teams focus on finding ways to resolve a problem.

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Sharon Dolak, RDH, ADR specialist, provides dental teams with the tools needed to handle positive and negative conflict. Why does conflict exist in dental practices? In her programs, Sharon reviews some of the major causes:

  • Denial -- Often dentists and/or managers refuse to see conflict among team members.
  • Poor communication -- Different communication styles can lead to misunderstandings if clear messages are not sent or received.
  • Different values -- Conflict occurs when there is a lack of acceptance and understanding of individual differences.
  • Different interests -- Conflict occurs when team members fight for their right to be right.
  • Scarce resources -- Employees often feel they have to "compete" for available resources to do their jobs or reach production goals.
  • Personality clashes -- Attitudes of team members who believe that their way is the only way can create conflict.
  • Poor performance -- One or more team members don't pull their share of the load or do not work to their potential.
  • Management style and poor change management -- Managers try to "rule" without input from team members.

When unresolved conflict exists, it can lead to low morale, absenteeism, high stress levels, and anxiety. High employee turnover, low productivity, injuries, and accidents can occur as a result.

Sharon helps teams understand that when handled appropriately, conflict is good. During her sessions, Sharon acts as a mediator and encourages participants to learn the skills to become effective mediators. Mediation deals with appropriate listening techniques, and communication skills are essential to conflict resolution.

Sharon believes that many facets in one's life -- from the quality of friendships, to the cohesiveness of relationships, to one's effectiveness at work -- hinge on the ability to listen. By listening and teaching others to listen, she can identify the underlying interests in a dispute so as to reach resolution.

Most importantly, Sharon demonstrates how to communicate respectfully to inoculate against future disputes. The result is a healthy office environment where increased morale and productivity can flourish and team members can concentrate on their jobs. Mediation and effective communication require that each person involved take responsibility for their part in the conflict. The parties themselves guide the outcome of the process and its resolution.

Sharon is a dental hygiene graduate of Montgomery County College, Pennsylvania, and has been practicing clinical hygiene for 22 years. The interpersonal relationships that she has formed over the years have kept her motivated. In the close-knit environment of dental practices, she's had to develop communication and relationship skills to navigate the inevitable conflicts. Many times she was the go-to person during a conflict to calm and sort out any disagreements.

This calming and fence-mending came naturally to her, so she decided in 2006 to study Mediation and Conflict Resolution at Texas Woman's University, and she earned the Alternative Dispute Resolution Specialist from Mediators Without Borders, an international organization founded in 1994 to promote sustainable peace by serving the public in facilitation, mediation, arbitration, and restorative justice.

She is also certified in Myers-Briggs Personality Assessment and Strong Interest Inventory Assessment and is a life coach. Sharon believes that dental hygiene is a wonderful profession that offers flexibility and good pay, but it is also a very demanding profession on the mind and body.

In order to make dental hygiene a career and not a job, Sharon stresses that it is important to find something that brings significance and worth to an individual, and for her that's mediation and conflict resolution. She knows that there will come a time when she will no longer want or be able to practice clinically, and she would like to take the lessons she has learned to others in dentistry and beyond. Additionally, her education and experiences have qualified her as a court-appointed mediator who can perform mediation of disputes relating to parent-child relationships (particularly in divorce and post-divorce cases).

In any mediation, whether in a dental office or family situation, parties of the conflict see only their position and anger. They feel stuck and think that the only way to stop the bad feelings is to leave the relationship or find a new job. But that isn't always the case. During the initial phases of mediation, Sharon allows the parties to express emotions and release hurt feelings. Once the parties move beyond their anger, they can see that the problem isn't impossible to solve and that the relationship/job can be saved. This realization allows real problem solving to occur and the parties themselves develop the solutions that are mutually beneficial. Since the solutions are self-determined, they tend to stick and the parties learn that future conflicts can be resolved in similar fashion. Sharon's goal is to discuss in a manner that is open and respectful, and she helps all participants reach that goal.

How would you feel if you were able to go to work tomorrow and find peace? Are you interested in resolving conflict that is overshadowing your life? Would you like to reduce tension in an important professional or personal relationship? Can you accomplish more, feel better, engage with your family, and create healthy balance in your life? If you answered yes to any of these questions, mediation and conflict resolution may be the program for you.

For more information on Sharon or her programs, contact srdolak@msn.com.

Thought for the month:
Do not wait until the conditions are perfect to begin. Beginning makes the conditions perfect. Alan Cohen

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ANN-MARIE C. DEPALMA, RDH, MEd, FADIA, FAADH, is a Fellow of the American Academy of Dental Hygiene and the Association of Dental Implant Auxiliaries, as well as a continuous member of ADHA. She presents continuing education programs for dental team members on a variety of topics. Ann-Marie is collaborating with several authors on various books for dental hygiene and can be reached at amrdh@aol.com.

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