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The fundamentals of team communication and leadership

Oct. 1, 2018
Ann-Marie C. DePalma, RDH, MEd, CDA, FADIA, explains how you can use communication strategies for leadership in the dental practice—to be a leader of yourself, of your team, and of your patients.

Ann-Marie C. DePalma, MEd, RDH, FADIA, FAADH

Every day dental teams do amazing things for their patients. Changing lives one smile at a time provides the dental professional with the joy of accomplishing the best for patients’ oral and systemic health. Yet, there are times within the daily routine that team members can be in conflict with one another. How can you be a leader in the practice to achieve the best for yourself, the practice, and the patients? This article will review the basics of leadership and communication and provide information you can incorporate into your practice.

Leaders are an important part of the equation for teams to take it to the next level for the practice and patients. Many feel that leaders are born, but they can be created. Leaders are not necessarily the “boss” or the employer. The skills that an effective leader possesses are skills that can be learned. For a person to be an effective leader one needs to possess

  • excellent communication skills;

  • a clear sense of purpose;

  • a commitment to service of others;

  • awareness of others’ goals and commitment to help them achieve those goals;

  • understanding of what needs to be done and a willingness to work to accomplish it; and

  • a sense of ownership and trust.

Leadership centers on a commitment to empowering others, trust, and effective communication. In dental offices, there are three different types of leaders: leader of self, leader of team, and leader of patients. As a leader of self, do you have personal and professional goals? How do you handle challenges? Do you think, “Oh, poor me,” or do you take the challenge and see it as an opportunity for growth? Are you making a difference in life? As a leader of the team, can your teammates count on you to help them accomplish their individual goals and move beyond their comfort zones? Do you communicate effectively with team members and patients? As a leader of patients, do you help patients decide what treatment is best for them? Do you discuss the value of dentistry? Are you a good listener? Do your team members and patients trust you? Do you follow through with commitments?

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To be an effective leader, you have to be an effective communicator. Effective communication involves four things: body language, tone of voice, passive listening, and active listening.

Most communication occurs through nonverbal messaging. Think of someone who has folded arms during a conversation; that could suggest closed-mindedness, but it could also represent a power struggle, insecurity, or frustration. On the other hand, someone making eye contact and moving closer to the speaker indicates interest in the subject. Tone of voice involves rate, pitch, and volume. Someone from the Northeast speaking to a group from the South might have to slow down the rate of his or her speech.

Pitch is the rate of vibrations of the vocal cords. Females tend to have a higher pitch (faster vibrations) than males. Tone can be used to express emotion. Volume is the strength or loudness of the voice; people lower the volume to express caring and raise the volume to express anger or frustration. The voice itself is the instrument of the message. That is why email messages are often misconstrued. The tone of voice and body language of the sender and recipient are not conveyed accurately.

Passive listening involves nonjudgmentally gathering information by saying things such as “Tell me more,” “How did you feel about that?” and “How is that working for you?” Active listening requires repeating back what you hear: “Mrs. Jones, I understand that you feel dental treatments are expensive . . . ” To be an effective communicator, you must use all four components of communication. There are numerous continuing education programs and other resources that you can utilize to become a better communicator or leader.

Even with the best communication and leadership skills, conflict can still arise. Conflict is not necessarily a bad thing and can bring about change. Yet many people are adverse to conflict. Using good leadership and communication skills, you can handle conflict effectively and productively.

You have to decide if the unacceptable behavior is truly having a negative effect or if it is only an annoyance. If it is only an annoyance, consider the words from the Disney movie Frozen: “Let it go!” It is only when the behavior is having a direct effect on the person or the practice that it needs to be addressed.

Think of a two-year-old child. When told what to do, the child will often dig in and refuse and may throw a temper tantrum. That is often what happens when conflict arises—adults don’t like being told they are wrong or what to do. If “I” messages are used during the conflict discussion, the listener will feel less like a two-year-old and more open to discussing the issue at hand. An “I” message involves a sincere emotion, the unacceptable behavior or conflict issue, and the concrete, negative effect the behavior or issue is having on the person or the practice.

An example of an “I” message from a hygienist to a business team member may be as follows: “I am frustrated when the time I have for patients is shortened without my approval since I am unable to provide our patients with the treatment they are expecting.” In this example, the emotion is frustration, the behavior is scheduled time shortened without approval, and the negative effect is not providing the appropriate care. By framing the concern in this manner, rather than saying, “You can’t shorten my appointment times,” the hygienist allows the business team member to feel less threatened and more open to further discussion. From here, the conversation can be more fully developed to

  • demonstrate concern and acceptance of the other person;

  • understand and communicate understanding of feelings;

  • allow for venting of negative feelings;

  • use passive and active listening;

  • show interest in wanting to hear concerns; and

  • welcome brainstorming to solve the issue or problem if needs conflict.

Brainstorming solutions to a problem is a win-win for both parties. Oftentimes, when conflicts arise, there is a winner and a loser. But when each party participates in the problem solving, there is an opportunity for both parties to win since they each have a say in the final decision. During the brainstorming process, each party can be viewed as a leader in the discussion to solve the issue at hand. During the decision-making process, everyone’s voice is heard. Parties are often encouraged to take a break, think about the alternatives, reconvene, and then arrive at a final decision that is mutually agreed upon. In this way, the win-win occurs.

In the example of the hygiene appointment time being shortened, the hygienist should perform a procedure analysis prior to the discussion. A procedure analysis or time study involves noting the time it takes to perform all of the tasks associated with the procedure.

For example, the clock should start at the time the hygienist takes the patient from the reception area, continue through all of the components of the hygiene appointment to final dismissal of the patient, and then stop after room breakdown and setup. This should be done for a number of days and with a number of patients to obtain the average full procedure and individual task times. With this information, the hygienist can inform the business team member, office manager, or doctor of the amount of time needed for treatments. Many doctors and administrators are number- or data-driven people, so having this information can assist in the decision-making process. A discussion can then occur regarding office protocols—if they can be accomplished in the current time frame or if the time needs to be altered. Using “I” messaging during this discussion can help bring about a win-win for the practice, patients, and team members.

Great dental teams are formed with a group of leaders working toward a common set of goals that enhance the patients’ experiences. Are you a leader within your practice to enhance your patients’ experiences? Leadership and communication, in combination with trust, are the foundations of great teams.

Ann-Marie C. DePalma, MEd, RDH, FADIA, FAADH, was the 2017 recipient of the Esther M. Wilkins Distinguished Alumni Award of the Forsyth School for Dental Hygiene/Massachusetts College of Pharmacy. She presents continuing education programs on a variety of topics and has authored chapters in several dental hygiene texts. She can be reached at [email protected].