EQ: The Key to Success in Today's Dentistry

By Dana C. Ackley, Ph.D. (Originally published in Dentistry Today, September 2001)

Dr. Bartlett and Dr. Griffin practice next door to each other. Both are highly skilled dentists. However, equal skill has not produced equal results. There are numerous signs that Dr. Griffin’s practice functions better and is less frustrating than Dr. Bartlett’s:

  • Dr. Griffin usually goes home on time and is rarely at the office on weekends; Dr. Bartlett is almost always late for dinner and spends a lot of weekend time at his office.

  • Dr. Griffin’s staff has been together for several years; Dr. Bartlett deals with frequent turnover.

  • Dr. Griffin’s practice appears more profitable, as suggested by cars driven, equipment purchased, and retreats provided for practice staff.

  • Dr. Bartlett hears many warm and appreciative comments about Dr. Griffin and his staff when he covers for Dr. Griffin. Dr. Bartlett gets more complaints than compliments from his own patients.

So, what makes the difference? Surprisingly, research shows that, even though our country reveres IQ, intelligence and job knowledge explain no more than 25% of career success. It is emotional intelligence, or EQ, that explains the lion’s share of success. By implication, in dentistry, the degree of development of EQ will largely determine whether a practitioner:

  • attracts enough of the right kinds of patients

  • is able to develop good working relationships with patients once they have found the office

  • is able to organize the practice team into an effective and enjoyable workforce.

EQ is getting a lot of attention these days, but it is not just the latest fad. Twenty years of scientific study have documented the immense impact EQ has on career success. Today, business organizations (don’t forget that your practice is a business) of all sizes have begun to pay attention to EQ to help with hiring, training, and performance. Such well known companies as Merrill Lynch, American Express, CIBA, Canada Life, the US Air Force, and Johnson & Johnson have instituted EQ development programs. They have found that employees with high EQ add much more to the bottom line, whether those employees are in leadership, sales or even highly technical positions. As company EQ rises, so does performance, employee retention rates, customer satisfaction, and profitability. Dentists deserve to have access to the same information about EQ that large corporations have.

What is EQ, and Why Is It Important to Dentists?: EQ can be defined as the set of skills people use to read, understand, and respond effectively to the emotional signals sent to us by others and by our selves. These skills allow us to understand and adjust our reactions to events and people, and they enable us to influence others. Dentists, staff, and patients all bring important emotions to the office. EQ determines whether those emotions largely enhance the practice or mostly cause trouble.

Even though Dr. Griffin has never heard the term “EQ”, he practices these skills daily. Knowing what to do and say around people seems to come easily to him.

Dr. Bartlett, on the other hand, is happiest working on the dental problems of his patients. His energy is so focused on the technical aspects of his work that people almost seem to disappear. He pays a heavy price for this approach.

First, staff members rarely know when they have pleased him, leading them to appear disorganized as they try first one thing and then another to get a positive response from him. Second, his patients find him cool and remote. They never get the chance to see how deeply he cares about their dental health and how that caring drives him to take such pains with his work. Sometimes, Dr. Bartlett gets irritated with patients who don’t follow his advice after all the hard work he has done for them. Then the patients are sure that Dr. Bartlett doesn’t like them. Next time they need to have their teeth looked at they put it off or maybe even go to a different dentist. When Dr. Bartlett tries to solve that problem by keeping his irritation to himself, he gets an upset stomach or a headache, though he has not yet made the connection between these physical symptoms and his feelings. Sometimes he snaps at his staff. They seem to take it personally. Sometimes they quit, and then he has to replace them.

Dr. Bartlett feels a little discouraged and hopeless about his practice, because he is not sure what he is doing wrong. All he knows is that he doesn’t have Dr. Griffin’s knack for getting along, and there’s not much he can do about it. But that’s where he is wrong. While it is true that some people seem to be blessed with a set of natural EQ skills, research shows that EQ skills can be learned.

Illustrating EQ

Some EQ skills involve the ways that we handle our inner world. Self esteem, for example, is the ability to respect ourselves for our positives while acknowledging our negatives. When we have good self esteem, we experience ourselves as competent and likeable. Self esteem enhances performance. When we believe that we are competent, we are more likely to perform competently. Self esteem plays a big part in leading dentists to set and collect fees that match the value of their services.

Self awareness is the ability to recognize our emotions and their source. Dr. Bartlett has difficulty here. He tends to focus much more on the tasks at hand than whether he or others feel happy or angry, nervous or relaxed. He experiences such emotions, but because he pays them little attention, he often experiences the negative ones as distressing physical symptoms. Sometimes he just feels irritable without knowing why.

Good self awareness skills allow us to identify problems associated with negative feelings. When we can identify the problems, we have a reasonable chance of solving them. If we ignore them, they don’t really go away. Instead they manifest themselves in undesirable and unexpected ways, including stress related illnesses. Then we use our energy dealing with those manifestations rather than solving the real problems.

Other EQ skills involve dealing with people and their emotions. Empathy is one example. Empathy is the ability to read and care about the signals people send us with their words, behavior, and body language. If we can read the signals, we have a good chance of responding constructively. Dentists, for example, need to recognize when a patient is afraid, so that they can modify their approach when necessary. Empathy is also important in treatment planning. When you can accurately predict how someone will feel about your recommendations, you can tailor your communications to dramatically increase acceptance of your plans.

Other components of EQ include such skills as problem solving and optimism. Problem solving, the ability to be careful and methodical in solving problems, may appear to be primarily cognitive. Yet it has many emotional components. For example, tough problems can make us nervous, discouraged, or angry. If we don’t know how to keep those feelings from overwhelming us, our problem solving becomes controlled by emotion instead of judgment.

Dentistry might be conceptualized as a process of solving problems related to dental health. The better you and your staff get at solving difficult problems, including the emotional components that come with them, the more people are going to flock to your door. You may not be particularly interested in the emotions your patients attach to dental problems, but they are. If you can handle the teeth and the feelings, patient satisfaction will soar.

Optimism is the skill of positive future focus. Optimists cognitively assess their situation and put the emotional seasoning of hope into it. While we don’t yet have research on the impact of optimism on dental success, we do have studies on the success sales people have when they are optimistic. For example, MetLife found that optimistic sales people sold 37% more life insurance during their first two years of employment than their pessimistic colleagues.

“So what?” you may ask. “Dentists don’t sell!” I know that the word ‘sell’ creates negative emotions for health care professionals. We equate sales with manipulation. But, ethical, non-manipulative selling simply means that we properly educate people about their situation and give them appropriate information about their choices. Dentists and other professionals have a responsibility to do just that.

Pessimistic dentists, i.e., those dentists in the habit of predicting unhappy futures, unwittingly communicate, through word choice and body language, that the outcome of their proposed solutions may not be all that good. They may believe that they are “just being honest.” In reality, they are embracing an emotional bias that invites patients to reject their advice. Such rejection deepens the dentist’s commitment to pessimism. Optimistic dentists communicate faith in their efforts and an expectation that the patient will see the wisdom of their recommendations.

Dr. Bartlett’s Success: One evening, Dr. Bartlett left his office after a run-in with a particularly frustrating, non-compliant patient. He said to himself: “There has to be a better way!” He went to a bookstore and began browsing, hoping something would catch his eye. He saw nothing about dentists. But he did spot two books on EQ by Daniel Goleman, Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More than IQ and Working with Emotional Intelligence. (Goleman has a talent for explaining EQ conversationally while including the scientific foundation.) Dr. Bartlett accurately suspected that EQ may be another name for Dr. Griffin’s knack with people. When he read that emotional intelligence could be learned, he experienced a surge of hope and bought both books.

Reading about EQ made Dr. Bartlett want to assess his own EQ strengths and weaknesses. He offered staff members a chance to assess their EQ as well. There are a growing number of EQ assessment tools on the market that purport to measure EQ. Dr. Bartlett chose a tool such as the Bar-On Emotional Quotient Inventory (EQI), published by Multi-Health Systems, which has demonstrated its scientific validity through a development process that meets and exceeds the recommendations for test development of the American Psychological Association. (As with most well validated psychological measures, professional administration and interpretation is required.)

Dr. Bartlett and his staff found that, as a group, their self esteem was relatively good. Having a basic respect for and acceptance of themselves gave them the courage to look at their weaknesses. They found that empathy was not a strong point, which may have explained higher than desired patient turnover and lower than desired treatment plan acceptance.

Once Dr. Bartlett and his staff understood their EQ strengths and weaknesses, they planned development activities that pinpointed their needs. Some they could do on their own and some required outside consultation. A book by Steven Stein, Ph.D., and Howard Book, M.D., The EQ Edge: Emotional Intelligence and Your Success, gave them many useful suggestions.

Training in empathy helped them improve their skills at understanding each other and reading their patients. As a result, relationships with patients endured, even during inevitable problems. Patients complained less and complimented more, even though the quality of dental care, which had always been excellent, did not change. Staff turnover, a long standing problem, also declined as staff members learned how to work with each other and Dr. Bartlett in mutually satisfying ways.

Dentistry is a challenging profession. Many dentists, when faced with difficult practice issues, respond by doing what has worked for them in the past, i.e., improving their technical skills. In other words, they follow the psychological law that says: “When we don’t know what to do, we do what we know.” I hope that by introducing you to the possibilities of EQ I have widened your options.


Dana C. Ackley, Ph.D. is a Consulting Psychologist who enjoys working with dentists and their staffs to improve practice enjoyment and performance. He has been a guest presenter at the Pankey Institute. He can be reached by e-mail at dana.ackley@eqleader.net; by phone at 540-774-1927; and by mail at EQ Leader, Inc., 2840 Electric Rd., Suite 208, Roanoke, Virginia 24018.

The comprehensive science based EQ Leader Program builds lasting change in EQ skills that make a dramatic difference in performance.


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