Is it wrong to be right?

April 1, 2004
How can it be wrong to be right? When you're right, you're right, right?

by Janet Hagerman

How can it be wrong to be right? When you're right, you're right, right?

I recently experienced an incident in a dental office between a dentist and a hygienist who clearly had a conflict to resolve. It struck close to home because the hygienist reminded me of me, and how often my desire to be right interferes with my ability to communicate.

Having an effective strategy for conflict resolution is imperative for both your professional and personal lives. Conflicts, disagreements, misunderstandings, and frustrations are unavoidable parts of life. How you deal with them can make the difference between a life of stress, and a life of growth, learning, and fun.

Here's what I witnessed. The hygienist was young, bright, enthusiastic, and outspoken. The doctor was in his 60s, also strong and outspoken. They had a disagreement about a periodontal diagnosis. The hygienist wanted to treat gingivitis and moderate perio patients with non-surgical periodontal therapy. The doctor thought perio therapy should be reserved for heavy subgingival calculus accumulation only. The doctor wanted to get along with his new team, but perceived the hygienist as disrespectful, uncompliant, and insolent. The hygienist insisted she could not work under these conditions. She cited other incidents where the doctor did not adhere to standard ADA or OSHA protocols. Each time she was challenged, the hygienist replied, "But I'm right."

Yes, she was right. However, is her need to be right prohibiting her from getting what she wants, which is change of behavior in another person? How about you? Which is more important in a conflict, being right or resolving the problem?

How do you agree to disagree in an agreeable manner? How do you resolve the conflicts of your professional and daily lives?

According to Tony Robbins, a quality life depends on the quality of your communication, which depends on the quality of your questions. With this in mind, what questions can you ask to assist you in conflict resolution?

The next time you're frustrated and challenged (upset and angry!) with a situation or person, ask yourself these questions:

• What else could this mean? Many times we assume we know another person's reasons for doing something. People have their own agendas, and many times we're totally wrong about our assumptions. Sometimes the truth is light years away from what we thought. As my mother said, "There are two sides to every story, and somewhere in the middle is the truth." Challenge yourself to look for other meanings behind your problem.

• What's good about this? This is the hardest question to ask when you're in the middle of a really bad situation. It's easy to be optimistic when everything is going your way. It's the challenging situations in life that show your true character. The worst times will either bring out the worst or the best in you. What can be positive about conflict is that it will hopefully push you to solve problems more creatively, as well as prevent their reoccurrence.

People who ask, "What's good about this?" in the face of failure are often the ones who go on to achieve incredible results. Walt Disney applied to countless banks for a business loan for his idea for a revolutionary theme park. No one shared his vision. He didn't complain or crumble. Instead, his resolve grew stronger. He persevered to create the remarkable kingdom of Disneyland. Everyone has the ability to turn failure into success.

In his excellent book Failing Forward, John Maxwell tells readers to "make failure your friend." "The difference between average people and achieving people is their perception of and response to failure," he writes. How do you perceive your communication conflicts — as failures or as opportunities for growth?

When you're ready to address a conflict with a person:
• Begin with, "I need your help." Most people want to be helpful, which sets the stage for a cooperative rather than conflicting conversation.
• Acknowledge that person for the good in him or her, the quality of their work, and the shared vision you have for your work together. Begin your conversation with a genuine compliment such as, "I know what an excellent doctor you are and the high standard you and I both want for our patients."
• Ask how you can support the person in maintaining your mutual vision/work/goals, etc. This is critical because it forces the person to help you find a solution. More importantly, it accomplishes this in a way that does not place blame. Blame, whether warranted or not, creates defensiveness, which is totally unconstructive.

It takes a big person to use a script like this, to ask for help and how to be supportive, especially when you know, deep in your heart, that you are right. In the end, it doesn't really matter who is right and wrong if you are embroiled in the same conflicts over and over again with no resolution in sight. Giving up the need to be right — and seeing the wrong in always having to be right — is what separates the effective communicators from the rest.

This was a hard lesson for me, and I still forget it sometimes. But when I can rise above my desire to be right, a sense of refreshment washes over me, and life becomes fun again.

David Reznik, in his recent seminar for the American Academy of Dental Group Practices, said, "Of all the processes and systems we need in the dental office such as performance, ROI, and employee longevity, having fun is the most difficult!"

If having fun in your dental office is difficult, do something about it. Be a leader. Employ these new strategies for resolving conflict. Being right or wrong will be overpowered by being effective.

Janet Hagerman, RDH, BS, is a speaker, writer, and the director of dental hygiene for Coast Dental. She can be reached at jhager [email protected].