The Psychology of Influential Relationships

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

As a young person, when you dreamed of becoming a dentist, how did you picture yourself? Most readers probably envisioned working in someone's mouth to create health and beauty.

As a practicing dentist, you have discovered that picture is only partly accurate. There is a lot more to dentistry than, well, dentistry. You have to organize and equip an office, set salaries and fringe benefits, find the right vendors for supplies, and a myriad of other operational duties.

Another duty, one that they may not have told you much about in dental school, is that you have to influence people. Just as you cannot practice dentistry without drills and probes, you cannot practice dentistry without people. You must interact with everyone involved and win their cooperation. In all, there are four sets of people whom you must be able to influence in order to practice your profession.

First you must influence potential patients to call your office. Not only must people make the decision to call some dental office, some of those people must select you out of all the other choices that exist. Different dentists accomplish this goal in different ways, all of which fall under the concept of marketing.

Second, once people come into your office, you must influence individuals in a wide variety of ways. For example, you must influence people:

  • To accept dental procedures that, in and of themselves, are not very appealing (only the results are appealing)

  • To cooperate with behavioral requirements of dental procedures, i.e., "open wide (and keep it open!)" which do not come naturally to most people

  • To overcome the anxiety that many people have about dental procedures to allow you to do your job

  • To adopt self-care habits, such as flossing and brushing, that many people seem remarkably resistant to doing

  • To take responsibility for their dental health rather than turn it over to you (so that they can blame you when problems arise)

  • To learn enough about their oral health to make informed treatment decisions

  • To spend money on their dental health when so many other, more fun, choices exist in our world of plenty

  • To pay your bills promptly

The third set of people whom you must influence is your dental team.

First, you must influence the talented people to work for you, even though there may be a shortage of dental assistants, hygienists and good receptionists in your area. Once hired, you must be able to find ways to encourage motivation, to work towards the goals that you have for your practice, to treat your patients the way that you want them treated, to get along with each other reasonably well, to treat you the way you want to be treated, and so forth.

Finally, the last set of people you must influence has just one person in it - you. You must influence yourself to learn your craft, work under stressful conditions, not to say some of the things to some patients that you want to say but know are unwise, constantly strive for improvement, handle the business parts of practice even if they are not your cup of tea, and manage the stress that is inherent in practicing a challenging profession.

How much training did you get in dental school on how to influence people? Most dentists tell me "not a lot." As a result of under-developed skills of influence, many dentists are not having the success, pleasure of practice, and the effectiveness that they desire and that is possible.

The good news is that the skills of constructive influence can be learned. This monthly column is one tool that can help. Mastery of the skills of influence can help you gain satisfaction in the practice of your profession, create more healthy mouths, enhance team performance, retain a larger percentage of your patients, and ensure your financial success

In this column, we will examine methods you can use to influence people towards mutually rewarding decisions and behavior. To be clear, this is not a column on how to manipulate or trick people. Professional influence is done within the context of relationships in which people want and seek your influence towards mutually desired goals.

Consider the Source: I have been a psychologist for thirty years. It has been my role and responsibility to influence thousands of people, in their thoughts, feelings and behavior, towards goals that we have jointly agreed upon. In my training and years of experience, I have learned many skills that I now teach to non-psychologists who also have responsibility to influence people, including dentists who also must influence many people, as we have seen. The outcome of enhanced influence skills has been increased effectiveness, greater impact, deeper satisfaction, and improved financial performance.

Emotional Intelligence: Many of the skills of influence fall within the concept of emotional intelligence (EQ), a term coined in 1985 by psychologists Dr. Peter Salovey (Yale University) and Dr. Jack Mayer (University of New Hampshire). EQ can be defined as the set of skills we use to read, understand, and respond intelligently to the emotional signals sent to us by others and by ourselves. These skills allow us to understand and adjust our reactions to events and to people based on that understanding. Emotional signals contain critical information because emotion drives most behavior. If you misread the emotion, you are likely to use ineffective strategies to influence folks.

Since 1985, EQ has been the subject of a great deal of research, both in psychological laboratories and in the real world. The results of this research make it quite clear that EQ plays an essential role in success. For example, one study looked at the factors that make some executives and physicians star performers. The top stars were found to contribute 127% more to the bottom line of their organization than average performers. For the most part, these stars were not smarter nor were they more technically skilled than their average performing colleagues. The real difference? Stars were found to be superior in EQ skills.

In the high-tech world of computer programmers, the difference is even more dramatic. The top ten percent of programmers add 320% more to the bottom line than the average performer, but not because they are more technically skilled. They aren't. Their superior performance flows from their stronger EQ skills, which allow them to influence customers, co-workers and even bosses more effectively.

In a study I conducted with the Pankey Institute for Advanced Dental Education, we found that EQ skills were positively correlated with success in implementing Pankey's relationship-intensive practice model. The higher the dentist's EQ, the more success he or she had in implementing the Pankey model. In other words, some of the dentists who have faithfully attended six or more weeks of intensive training at Pankey have not had success integrating what they have learned into their practice because they have not learned some of the skills of constructive influence necessary to be successful.

Good news: Whereas IQ is generally considered to be determined at birth, our EQ skills are always open to improvement. Many people who have worked to enhance their EQ skills have been able to overcome barriers to their career that have blocked them for years.

Over the coming months, this column will help you better understand the skills and methods of constructive influence. Growth in your ability to constructively and cooperatively influence all of the people in your practice world may provide the lever you have been looking for to make a quantum difference in your practice.

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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