The Powerful Art of Storytelling

Dec. 1, 2005
Don’t lament about the patient who slipped off the hook; embellish your undeniable message.

Don’t lament about the patient who slipped off the hook; embellish your undeniable message.

My father was an avid fisherman, and fishermen are generally known as good storytellers. Indeed, my father never met a stranger. He naturally sensed who would be receptive to his colorful tales. Those who heard his tales often didn’t want him to stop. I was fortunate to inherit his flamboyant talent. Whether it is a tale of catching the biggest fish in the pond or a step-by-step account of how that elusive fish managed to escape, fishermen’s anecdotes can make friends out of complete strangers.

When I began my career in dental hygiene, I knew that my knack for storytelling could be very beneficial. I recognized that my skills could help develop a strong rapport with patients that could translate into good patient compliance. Upon graduation, I was ready to scale and seal the world. I wanted to dazzle patients and peers with my vast knowledge of dentistry, unyielding enthusiasm, and my inherited “gift of gab.” What I had not yet learned was that the most powerful part of storytelling is listening.

When was the last time you saw Mr. Apathy whose repulsive oral hygiene makes you completely frustrated? You warn him time and again about his inadequate oral hygiene, yet at each appointment the procedure becomes more grueling for both of you. His probing depths keep getting deeper. You tell him every tooth will literally fall out of his mouth, and yet he continues his path of oral self-destruction as though he hasn’t heard a word.

Then there’s Mrs. I Promise. She promises she’ll follow your directions, but when she comes back to your chair three months later, she hasn’t. Are your patients just telling you what you want to hear? Maybe we’re not hearing what our patients are telling us. Maybe we’re so busy “educating, educating, educating” that we’re not “listening, listening, listening.”

Obviously, motivation by fear doesn’t work with Mr. Apathy and Mrs. I Promise. Many competent and proficient hygienists continue to “educate, educate, educate” only to experience the same results of non-compliance. Why don’t our patients share our enthusiasm for oral health? We all speak the same language, or do we?

If you have more than your share of Mr. Apathy and Mrs. I Promise patients, you need to take an honest look at yourself and your working environment. When working with challenging patients, you must be completely focused and not distracted by personal or office problems. Ask, “Is this the right office for me?” A dysfunctional relationship with your employer or co-worker will adversely affect your communication skills with patients. It is not enough to have confidence in yourself. You should have complete confidence in your employer and co-workers.

Respect is a two way street and applies to everyone you work with. When you begin your career, you may not know what practice is a good fit. As you learn and grow in your profession, it is important to examine again your professional relationships and determine if the dream job you accepted five years ago is the right place for you today. Are you still there because there’s no other alternative? Maybe you’re still there because you’ve become comfortable being miserable.

Continuing education is a critical part of developing and maintaining our careers. We spend valuable time and money on the delivery of clinical expertise. Don’t we owe it to the practice and our career to spend valuable time and money on customer service? Going the extra mile with a handwritten thank-you note or taking time out of a busy schedule to call a patient, instead of asking the front desk to do it, tells patients we care. Suddenly they don’t look at their trip to the dentist in a negative way. Good customer service is universally appreciated and makes people feel special.

Communication is the first casualty of a schedule that pushes for more production in less time. Patients want to be heard and when we listen them, they feel validated. It invites them to participate in their own health care, which is a wonderful asset. We should be concerned about what we say, how we say it, and how someone else will perceive it. When we educate, educate, educate, our enthusiasm is often misinterpreted as demeaning. We need to ask questions and encourage communication, which helps patients retain their dignity. This relaxed approach promotes feelings of trust and supports a stress-free encounter.

We owe our patients an honest representation of the services we provide to improve their oral health. Through the latest technology, we can offer more services than ever before. If we focus our efforts on how to resolve a problem and assure patients we can improve their quality of life, we are addressing the problem in a positive manner.

Perhaps you should listen to Mr. Apathy before you share your infinite knowledge of oral health. Although you may see areas of concern, ask, “Mr. Apathy, what are your concerns?” Listen to what he has to say. Perhaps he isn’t listening to you because he’s heard it time and again, and he associates your message with nagging. Maybe it takes everything Mr. Apathy has just to walk through your door. If you don’t get to know Mr. Apathy, you’ll never know why he acts the way he does.

Like it or not, we are the cheerleaders of oral health. We care about our patients, and perhaps a change in not only how we speak to them, but how we listen to them is in order. Cheerleaders don’t nag - they motivate.

Understanding what our patients’ priorities are will reduce frustration for both parties. Communicating effectively with patients begins with listening. People deserve respect, hope, and honesty. You deserve to work in a healthy, positive environment, and if you’re dissatisfied with your job, you’re part of the problem. By speaking with and not at your employer, co-workers, and patients, you create an environment that allows you to deliver optimum care in a pleasant and less stressful atmosphere.

Aesop, Hans Christen Anderson, and Mark Twain are famous storytellers who not only entertain, they challenge us to look at ourselves. The authors always shared a clever and undeniable message. Don’t be afraid to share your stories with patients. You don’t have to be born a storyteller to communicate with your patients. You just have to make time to listen.

Cheryl A. Thomas, RDH, currently resides in Galveston, Texas. She can be contacted at [email protected], or visit her Web site at