Learning to Use Your Psychological Equipment

By Dana C. Ackley, Ph.D. Originally published by ACT Dental.

Could you walk when you were born? Of course not. When your muscles and mind were mature enough, you had to practice, usually with some guidance. Later you had opportunities to master other skills requiring coordination, such as baseball, playing the piano, dancing and so forth. You went on to dental school to learn technical skills that require high levels of fine motor coordination. Our society provides people with many organized ways to learn muscle-based skills.

Could you do multiplication at birth? Of course not. When you were mature enough, teachers worked with you to learn that and many other intellectual skills. Our society provides countless organized activities to teach intellectual skills.

When you were born, did you know how to manage stress, think optimistically, understand the feelings of others, or express yourself without offending people? Like baseball and multiplication, these emotional skills are learned. See if you can list one organized activity our society offered you to learn or improve these essential skills. For the most part, such organized training doesn't exist. That's costly to your practice.

Consider the hygienist who gets frustrated with a patient who "just doesn't get it." The patient returns time after time with clear evidence that they have not been within a hundred yards of dental floss, despite the hygienist's repeated instructions. Finally, out of frustration, she says something impolite. Next week your patient asks that her records be transferred to another dentist.

Harsh lectures rarely change someone else's behavior. Your hygienist needs to know a variety of emotional skills. Your hygienist needs empathy skills to be able to accurately read why your patient repeatedly avoids flossing. What are the emotional blocks? (The blocks to self care are almost always emotional, including such things as dependency and poor stress management.)

Second, your hygienist needs to learn assertiveness. Don't confuse assertiveness with aggressiveness, i.e., those irritable, somewhat threatening lectures that shame patients and often lead them to cancel further appointments. Assertiveness involves expressing our wants and needs in ways that do not threaten others. The subtext of an assertive statement is "I'm not going to hurt you and I'm not going to let you hurt me." Many dental patients, as you well know, are easily threatened in your chairs. Thus, hygienists need even greater than average assertiveness skills to get past patients' potential to perceive threat, often where none exists.

Or consider the assistant who frequently does incomplete set-ups. She is constantly leaving the operatory to get a forgotten piece of equipment. Why doesn't she learn? It may be that she has not yet learned good stress management techniques. High levels of stress often get in the way of clear thinking. If she is struggling with working in a high demand situation, as most dental practices are, combined with trying to raise young children, and perhaps some financial pressures, she has plenty of stress. Learning stress management skills might reduce her chronic level of anxiety to the point that more of her mind could focus on her work.

Or consider the highly skilled dentist, the one who has been to many extra training programs and can offer his patients a wide variety of sophisticated and valuable services. But, his patients rarely allow him to do so. They don't take his recommendations. Why? Perhaps he has not learned the skill of self regard. If so, his self doubts, unavoidably, will be expressed in his ways of explaining his recommendations to patients. Patients may not be able to articulate that this dentist has self doubts, but they sense something that discourages them from going further.

I recently conducted a national study with the Pankey Institute for Advanced Dental Education. We found that those dentists who had higher levels of mastery of four specific emotional skills were more successful in doing increasingly complex (and profitable) work with their patients. The skills were:

  • Emotional Self Awareness - the ability to recognize our own emotions

  • Reality Testing - the ability to see situations as they are rather than as we wish them to be

  • Assertiveness - as indicated earlier, the ability to express our ideas in non-threatening ways but that do show our own strength

  • Self Actualization - the ability to develop ourselves in meaningful ways, i.e., these dentists drove themselves to do something with the training that they had received.

Leaving dentistry for a moment, business research also shows that emotional skills are essential for success. The Center for Creative Leadership studied why executives get fired. They were not fired for poor intellectual skills. (Corporations are as skilled at screening for intellectual talent as our society is at developing it.) They were fired for poor emotional skills. They offend people, try to order people around, and have poor team skills. An executive who lacks emotional skills costs their business so much that company leaders actually, finally, often way too late, face the emotionally fearsome task of letting another executive go.

Studies demonstrate the flip side too. Emotionally skilled CEO's create dramatically higher profits for their companies than leaders without such skills. Insurance sales professionals who have learned the emotional skill of optimism outsell their pessimistic colleagues by a wide margin. There are many other studies that demonstrate similar results for a variety of emotional skills.

Implication: Our belief system seems to be that people are supposed to just somehow, magically, learn emotional skills. If people learned emotional skills as a natural part of growing up, we would not be burdened with the huge costs of drug abuse, alcohol abuse, person abuse and crime. The vast majority of these behaviors result directly from poor emotional skills. We also would not be burdened by such high health care costs. It is estimated that 90% of illness today is caused by or related to stress. Stress management is an emotional skill.

So, as a dentist, and small business leader, what can you do? First, don't be sucked in by the attitude of our larger society, i.e., that people should "just know this stuff." True, some people are lucky enough to grow up in a home where parents have managed to learn many important emotional skills and pass them on to their children. But emotional skills are complex. No one ever masters them all. Learning to use our psychological equipment is a life long task. All people are incomplete, which means that the teachings of even the best parents are incomplete. Every staff member you have, including yourself, has room for growth. Embrace and model the attitude that everyone has the right to grow and develop.

Second, consider coaching and training in emotional skills for yourself and staff. Coaching is becoming increasingly popular in business. Successful companies provide coaches for their most talented leaders as a perk. They know, if they get the right kind of coaches, that the return on investment will be high. Studies back up this belief. Training programs also provide excellent impact when they are grounded in science-based methods to produce changes in trainees' emotional default responses.

You can do the same for you and your staff. You can engage in a program of emotional skill mastery. Results can include higher practice profitability, lower patient turnover, higher acceptance rates for your treatment recommendations, lower staff turnover (imagine not having to run so many recruitment ads), less stress in your office, and better working relationships with both your team and your patients.

Dana C. Ackley, Ph.D. is a psychologist who provides coaching and consultation to dentists and their staffs. He has been a guest lecturer at the Pankey Institute for Advanced Dental Education and writes frequently for Dentistry Today. He can be reached at dana.ackley@eqleader.net , or 540-774-1927, or 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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