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Self-awareness in the profession: Dental hygiene's emotional intelligence needs improvement

Feb. 17, 2016
By Lory Laughter: Dental hygiene's emotional intelligence needs improvement

Dental hygiene's emotional intelligence needs improvement

Lory Laughter

Many catchphrases have come and gone throughout my life. While the process stays essentially the same, the names change either out of new understanding or simple vernacular. One of the new phrases circulating is emotional intelligence. I have studied the concept a bit, and while I agree with many of the aspects, the newness of the idea is lost on me. In the past, it might have been referred to as common sense. Emotional intelligence has been studied in relationship to students, employees, and even in seeking effective leaders. It also has a place in evaluating and strengthening organizations and professions.

One component of emotional intelligence is self-awareness-the ability to understand what drives oneself and the effect on others. This includes recognizing one's own emotions and moods. Self-awareness is often thought of as self-confidence and can be expressed as realistic self-reflection. This component is essential for an organization to possess emotional intelligence.

Our profession must be self-aware, especially in our dealings with other professions that want to limit our trade or expand their own. At the same time, we need to realize that our desire to protect our territory and the emotions surrounding that process have an effect on others in ways we may not intend. The profession's loud opposition to scaling assistants may come across to some outsiders as petty and self-serving. In reality, the best interest of the public is not met when those not educated in providing such duties are allowed to treat unsuspecting patients.

We must be careful when expressing our desire to prevent disease and improve the health of the population. One approach is to explain why an RDH is the best educated and safest choice for unsupervised preventive care, rather than focusing on why assistants with limited training are less than ideal. Our profession is well served by a positive and proactive approach-using self-awareness to make forward strides.

Another aspect to emotional intelligence is self-regulation-the ability to control disruptive impulses and to think before acting. When someone has self-regulation, they refrain from snap judgments and are open to change. Normally we think of self-regulation as the ability to control and regulate our own profession, but it goes further. The profession cannot take on controlling and regulating itself if we are not open to change. This includes a change in how education is delivered, and the level of expectation for those holding a license to practice dental hygiene.

A profession develops and continually contributes to its own body of knowledge, a process requiring original research, continual reviews of existing theories, and higher educational degrees. While most dental hygienists practice clinically in private practice, being a profession requires a more diverse inclusion. We cannot progress and show self-regulation without promoting and supporting higher education. The old adage that an RDH with an associate's degree makes just as much as an RDH with a master's degree needs to end. Education must be rewarded, and incentives to continue beyond entry level should be evident. A profession displaying self-regulation is not satisfied with the minimum or status quo.

Self-regulation ties into the next component of emotional intelligence-motivation. Motivation is the passion to pursue goals with energy and persistence that go beyond monetary rewards. Optimism is a big part of motivation and a profession must remain positive, even in the face of failure.

One state's loss at stopping chairside scaling assistants is not a complete loss to the whole profession. It is a time to study the process and devote ourselves to organizational commitment. We need to discover what went right in the loss and build from the positive. We need a profession dedicated to reaching our goals while simultaneously changing and evolving. Disagreement is not always negative; an exchange of differing ideas is the way to correct past mistakes. Dental hygiene cannot fight the next battle using the same strategies that failed in the last battle.

Empathy is the one area of emotional intelligence where I feel the profession somewhat lacks. The ability to understand the emotional reaction of others, cross-cultural sensitivity, and not only building but retaining talent often seems absent to those outside our profession. Empathy focuses on clients and patients, not just our needs or the actions of organized dentistry. If our messages and actions always portrayed our desire to serve the public, dental hygiene would gain the much-needed support of those outside dentistry. Showing some empathy, even toward the opposition, may sway voters to vocalize support for our profession to important legislators. Imagine the power empathy could provide.

Empathy cannot be extended just to the public, however. It is impossible to gain support within our own profession when talent is ignored and input is met with negative responses. No one wants to be an active participant where they are not respected or shown understanding for their talents and views.

The final component of emotional intelligence is social skills. Proficiency in building relationships and networks is vital to our survival as a profession. There are many agencies and organizations outside dentistry with interests common to ours. Finding common ground with such entities can make us stronger and provide a shared platform with a significantly larger presence. Developing and refining professional social skills facilitates persuasiveness leading to change and needed reform. Think of it as "please and thank you" with power.

Emotional intelligence may be the phrase of the moment, but the components and tenets are valuable. Individually, we can use the principles to be better leaders and team members. Collectively, as a profession, emotional intelligence practices could guide us to solutions and advocacies we have not yet considered. It's about more than playing nice in the sandbox; it's participating in a positive manner and empowering ourselves to create networks and generate change to best serve the public and our profession. There is no better way to win the match than to do it in such a manner that garners respect from the masses. RDH


1. Harvard Business Review: OnPoint Article, D Goleman, Best of HBR 1998.

Lory Laughter, RDH, BS, MS, practices clinically in Napa, Calif. She is owner of Dental IQ, a business responsible for the Annual Napa Dental Experience. Lory combines her love for travel with speaking nationally on a variety of topics. She is also a part-time educator or consultant for American Eagle, Livionex, and Nuvora. She can be contacted at [email protected].