EDITOR'S NOTE: Talk sincerely, or else the hearing aid goes off!

May 1, 2001
The good news is that most people are not necessarily expecting successful communication with every word uttered.

I wear a hearing aid. I've slipped it on just about every day for 40 years. Hearing aids, of course, are essentially machines, powered by batteries. So, on a sporadic basis, I have to visit a lab that services hearing aids.

There's one about three blocks from work, and it's smack dab in the middle of the path that stretches from my home to work. If convenience is what I want out of life, then this lab would be a higher being's idea of giving a break to Mark Hartley. If the technicians have good arms, they could throw a fresh pack of batteries through an open window in my car as I drive past.

However, I avoid this lab like I avoid ear infections.

The kindness that "kills you" in that joint is almost robotic. Every word is scripted, and their version of compassion was likely sculpted during a $1,000 get-away-for-a-weekend seminar. They are professional, competent, and completely insincere. "Why don't you step this way, Mr. Hartley, and one of our technicians will evaluate the performance of your hearing aid? Afterwards, we'll discuss whether the brand new Bionic Ear is what you need." I didn't ask about the Bionic Ear, or even express any doubts about the model I wear. Their scripts constantly leap to conclusions about what I desire.

The only reason I know this lab so well is because I will simply run out of time. I'll let them handle inexpensive stuff - a pack of batteries on the way to the airport, or to clear the ear wax out of a tube. Otherwise, I go out of my way to get service from people who seem "real" to me. I don't like the feeling that there's a "script" for the best way to talk to me.

There's an awful lot of attention being paid to the communication skills of dental professionals. Everyone with an opinion thinks there's one right way to communicate with a patient and a thousand wrong ways. Personally, I think it's the other way around; there are a thousand right ways and one wrong way. I think if I see one more script about the right way to communicate with patients, I'm going to be, uh, physically ill. Having said that, I should point out that among this huge crowd of consultants, seminars, and journals offering advice on communication skills, there is one with which you're definitely familiar. It's RDH magazine.

In fact, Dianne Glasscoe's "Staff Rx" column in this issue offers her input on communication skills to use with "angry" patients. But she was responding to a letter from a reader who asked for help. Also, Judy McDonough, as profiled by Joanne Sheehan, talks about the "moment of truth" in establishing that first (and very important) impression with patients. It's unlikely that consultants, seminars, and journals would thrive if no one needed help in communicating with patients.

Nevertheless, I sometimes think articles and seminars about communication skills could be boiled down to one or two sentences. The first sentence would be: Be nice to clients. If it's necessary to have a second sentence, it would be: Be yourself. If we absolutely have to have a third sentence (after all, the seminar's probably scheduled to last at least an hour), it would be: Throw the scripts away and keep it simple.

I don't know anyone who likes talking to someone who has memorized his or her lines. An obvious truth is that you know the person sitting in your chair better than a consultant, a presenter at a seminar, or RDH magazine does. If you don't, you are, frankly, probably in the wrong occupation.

Another personal belief of mine is that our communication skills are overrated. It's hard work to communicate with each other. We fail frequently, whether it's with a spouse, a child, a parent, a friend, or a client. The good news is that most people are not necessarily expecting successful communication with every word uttered. What they're looking for is an attempt to be considerate during the communication process. Despite any difficulties, what you say is something you have to figure out for yourself every single time. If you're sincere about your attempt to communicate, the right words will eventually tumble out.

If they don't, I'll just turn the hearing aid off. Fair enough?

Editor Mark Hartley can be contacted at [email protected].