by John Gerling, DDS, MSD

How running an orthodontic office is like brushing your teeth

I’ve been in practice for 23 years, and as I look back on my career, one of the absolute highlights has been the development of communication skills with my staff. I practiced for 10 years without proper ongoing communication with my employees, and I view this time as similar to the Dark Ages. With proper constructive communication, you can enter the Age of Enlightenment—“enlightenment” meaning, in this instance, “lightening your load.”

Unfortunately, most instinctive human communication is based on emotion and the need to be right. These two ingredients combine to compromise what should be constructive communication. The saying, “Anger is one letter away from danger,” is apropos. In particular, times of stress (when you have a full schedule, noncooperative patients, and recurring problems) tend to emphasize nonconstructive communication and “overpowering” of individuals. The higher the emotional level, the less likely that problems will be resolved and more likely that lasting damage will be inflicted. How often do we hear from colleagues that they really enjoy the practice of clinical dentistry but don’t enjoy their involvement in staff management?

Some of you may remember a poster from years ago of an aging orthodontist and all the misery that had been inflicted on him. He was the only one pulling the wagon; he had a knife in his back from referring dentists; he had a resignation slip from an employee who had quit just after the Christmas bonuses were handed out. You get the idea.

Steven Covey, in his book The Seven Habits of Highly Successful People, says that most people see the world as singling them out for abuse and persecution, but the reality is that other people are merely reacting to their actions. If your life is not what you want it to be, you have the power to make positive change. There aren’t winners and losers; there are choosers. Choose to be an excellent communicator.

Let’s explore a way to make positive changes in our communication process and unleash the creative energy that you and your staff possess. I promise that the first people who will notice your communication change will be your patients.

We have to dedicate 40 to 60 minutes per week to the process, and in broad terms it involves three areas:

1) Open and nonthreatening communication of negative interactions;

2) requests for changes in practice procedures or behaviors; and

3) acknowledgments of positive and supportive interactions.

When we first began what we call the Communication Circle, 95% of the time was taken up in dealing with the negative interactions. Over the ensuing months, there was a gradual change, and now our Circle consists of 95% acknowledgements.

As dental professionals, we all know the consequence of not brushing and flossing regularly: periodontal disease. I can’t think of a better comparison to communication, and we’ll call it PERIO (Poor Ecology of Relationships In the Office). Ecology is defined as “the environment as it relates to living organisms.” If you “clean” your relationships regularly through constructive communication, you will remove the detritus of negative interactions. Once you have removed this detritus, you will allow the natural beauty of human relationships to shine through. People will be empowered to make meaningful contributions and accept correction to their errant behavior. Your office will be far along the road to true teamwork and happiness.

The way this shows up in our practice is in comments from people when they first visit, such as, “Something is really different here. Y’all (we’re in Texas) really seem to get along!”

Another very significant benefit is that staff turnover goes down dramatically. I still lose an employee occasionally, but it’s for reasons like pursuing further education or following a husband who has been transferred. I don’t lose employees because of staff conflicts. I talk with new staff about the difficulty of replacing important and skilled employees. I’m aware of an office that tells employees they are “easily” replaced. I don’t know about you, but it takes me a while to get an employee up to speed!

Everyone in this process comes out a winner. As the orthodontist, you will feel the staff get behind you and support your efforts. A lot of weight will come right off your shoulders. The staff will actually look forward to their daily interactions with each other, and when another staff member is having difficulty, they will mutually support one another. The patients will notice the big difference in how you and the staff interact and how you communicate with them. They will pay you compliments by referring their friends.

John Gerling, DDS, MSD, has a private practice in McAllen, Tex. He can be reached at [email protected].