Getting Patients to Open Up

While our world revolves around dentistry, it often occupies a very small space in our patient’s lives. Just like you, your patients struggle with life issues every day – and most of them have nothing to do with dentistry. But how do you know whether the cause of their distress is something related to dentistry or something else?

In this blog I will address the moment in which your patient is giving signals that they are upset and how you might respond. Earning your patient’s trust and allowing them the opportunity to express themselves will bring you one step closer to developing a successful relationship…

There are times when you get a sense a person is struggling with something. Their posture, actions and comments give you a clue that something isn’t quite right. He might hang his head, furrow his brow, breath deeply, look anxious, sweat, or make comments under his breath. Does this sound familiar? Oftentimes when witnessing people in this state, you might become uncomfortable. While you might readily address it with a child or spouse, you might be reluctant to raise it with people you don’t know very well.

If you find yourself observing patients who are anxious, or struggling, or angry, or conflicted or confused, you might be inclined to let those moments pass by without addressing them. It takes you outside your comfort zone. You may feel like you are “prying”. You might not feel like you have time to devote to the conversation. Then there are times when you just don’t want to go down that path. Whatever the reason, if you let the moment pass, you miss great opportunities. If you don’t pursue what is going on for a patient, you are missing valuable information that could help you become more effective with him or her. The reason may have nothing to do with the practice or what she hopes you can help her with but the more you know, the less you will make it up and get it wrong.

Team members tell me they don’t quite know how to initiate the conversation and this becomes the reason they let the moment pass. So here are some tools that will help you develop the skills and confidence to begin the conversation and provide you with more valuable insight.

The FIRST STEP is to learn to look for the nonverbal signs. Take a moment and think about all of the visual clues you see when people are upset, agitated, angry, impatient or confused. Write them down.

You likely listed furrowed eyebrows, slumped posture, agitated movement, making quick or strong gestures. Now, think about the audible cues you might hear and write those down. Did you list sighing or breathing hard, the tone in their voice, mumbling or talking under his or her breath? The more you think about this and write the signs down, the more likely you will be able to identify them when they occur. The important thing is to notice these signs when they happen so you can become aware of your patient’s emotional state. Some people use these physical and audible cues to tell others they are struggling, hoping they will ask what is going on. Others are unaware they are sending these subtle messages.

Once you recognize the signs, STEP TWO is to speak to the obvious. Make an observation about their behavior or body language in a non-judgmental way. Something as simple as, “Becky, I couldn’t help but notice that you seem a bit upset today”, or “Bob, you appear a little agitated” is enough. Spend some time coming up with phrases that can speak to the obvious and are observations of what you might see while not being judgmental.

The THIRD STEP is to follow up your observation comment with an invitation to discuss it. Depending on the circumstance, you might say something similar to, “Care to talk about it?”, or “Anything I can do?”, or “I hope we didn’t do something to upset you”. Make the words your own but the focus is to invite them to share with you how they are feeling.

Once you observe, acknowledge and invite, BE QUIET AND LISTEN.  This is where the magic can happen. You will be amazed at what you might hear simply by offering an opportunity without judgement or coercion.

If the person chooses to share how he is feeling, be prepared to fully commit to this and allow the person to get whatever it is off his chest. If he denies there is a problem or declines the offer, let him know you are available if he changes his mind. A simple, “OK. Let me know if I can help” is sufficient. Remember, a level of trust needs to be built for anyone to share their thoughts and feelings with someone else. For some, it takes much longer to get to that point and when you honor that, people will come one step closer to feeling that trust.

It is important to understand that you can not be their therapist and there is a point in which you must establish a boundary and disengage. The focus should be on determining if a person is, in fact, upset, angry, nervous, annoyed and if so, finding out why. If the source of the problem is you or the practice, you have an opportunity and a responsibility to work alongside the patient to resolve it.  If the issue has no relationship to the work you are doing together, acknowledge their feelings, thank them for sharing and move on.

It is natural to feel a little uncomfortable addressing a person’s emotional state but until you acknowledge it and offer to listen, you will not know what it is about. If left unaddressed, it may become a road block between you and your patient. The more you know, the more likely you can come closer to helping your patient and the more successful the practice will become. Find out more here: