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Why The Dentist MUST Be Liked

Life isn't fair.

Do you believe that? I expect your answer will depend on your experiences and worldview. I've had my chest split open on two separate occasions to correct congenital heart defects. I've had a malignant tumour cut out of my neck, and twenty thousand years’ worth of radiation directed at my throat. I get pain in my chest every other day so severe I can't talk, and I can't swallow properly. Do you know how often you swallow? It's a lot, and a constant reminder of MY life.

Do I think life is fair? Of course not (I'm sick, not stupid). But it is what it is, and you have to suck it up and play with the hand that life has dealt you. My worldview is that life is a puzzle. Every experience you have, every stumbling block you face, is an opportunity to look for a different piece of the puzzle. Am I glad I got cancer? Hell yeah. It forced me to find a different puzzle piece (to take a different direction) that has made me much healthier and happier. Thank you life.

There is one particular aspect of life, however, that I find particularly unfair. Given my experiences above, I hope you find this observation profound. The aspect of life that galls me the most, the thing that upsets me more than cancer and a dodgy heart, is the fact that pretty people tend to be more successful than less pretty people. Yep, you read that right. You and I might not be attractive enough to do well in life. How fair is that?

I am what we in Australia refer to as "an ugly bastard". It's a technical term; I hope I'm not confusing you with jargon. I was an ugly bastard BEFORE I had a chunk of my neck cut out, and it didn't make me any prettier. So why do you have to be attractive to get ahead in life?

In previous articles, we've discussed Professor Robert Cialdini's Influence principles. There are six principles he identifies that are hard-wired into our brains. You can't escape these influence principles; they are part of being human. In this article, we’re going to discuss the principle "Liking."

Cialdini says you are more likely to comply with requests made by people you like. Several factors can influence why you like some people more than others:

None of this is fair (we've already established that life isn't fair), but it's the way the world works, and you and I have to deal with it, and play the game as best we can. So what's this got to do with dentistry?

Doing Your Job Properly

If you want to guide (influence) your patients towards making good health decisions, they HAVE to like you. I'll go further. I think it’s your ethical duty to be as compelling as possible in your interactions with patients. The reality is the general public thinks preventive dentistry is a discretionary spend. What do you think is more important? Treating generalised moderate periodontitis before it becomes severe, or spending two weeks in Fiji? You know the answer, but your patients don't. I firmly believe it's your professional obligation to do your job as well as possible, and that means influencing people to make good choices. And like it or not, they have to LIKE you for that to happen.

How Do You Get Patients To Like You?

You have to be smart about it. I've been very lucky in my career to study under several communication geniuses, chief among them Dr Michael Sernik. Michael has taught a new patient exam protocol for many years that is true to Cialdini's principles.

A simple strategy Michael advocates is to spend significant time with the patient before you look in their mouth, asking questments. A questment is a term Michael invented. It is a cross between a question and a statement. So I will say things like "I'm curious about your previous dental experiences", or "I'm interested how you feel about keeping your teeth". When I'm asking questments I DO NOT give advice. I do not offer opinions. I remain intently focused on listening to the patient. And I listen to them for longer than any other dentist ever has.

And what’s the result? They like me. People like people who listen to their stories, who are interested in them. It's hard-wired into their brains. If I interrupt their stories it's only ever to agree with them. People like people who are similar. It's an irresistible force.

Remember I said Cialdini states that people like people who cooperate with them to achieve mutual goals? When do we cooperate with patients to achieve mutual goals? I think you’ll find it’s pretty much every single procedure we perform. So make sure your approach is cooperative not dictatorial. When you’re treatment planning, don’t just deliver a solution, offer treatment alternatives. Involve the patient in making a decision no matter how simple. They will actually like you as a result of going through the process of cooperation. It’s hard-wired into their brains. They HAVE to like you for cooperating with them.

A New Puzzle Piece

I don't know if you got the memo, but most people don't particularly enjoy going to the dentist, especially a new dentist. Fear of the unknown can be very powerful. So when I meet a (probably apprehensive) new patient for the first time, with the express goal of getting them to like me (so I can do my job better), I'm beginning the relationship in negative territory. And it's hard.

But What If There Was A Better Way?

Well, there is, thanks to the genius of Dr Michael Sernik. Michael has been pondering the problems and stumbling blocks in dentistry for years. That has led to the creation of a silent video system that communicates directly to patients in the waiting room. It’s called Channel D. The psychology behind it is complex and amazing. One of the many things Channel does is address the liking issue. The videos are customised for each practice, so many of mine have my face in them. All of them are filled with gentle humour. People like people who make them laugh (it's hardwired). Any video that features me, makes me seem friendly and more human (well, less like a dentist anyway). People like that, and as a result, they like me. And when they like me, it makes my job easier. I then get a better shot at helping them want, desire and accept better dental health outcomes. And that, of course, is win-win for everyone.

A New Direction

Sadly it's not enough to be good at what you do; you have to take being liked seriously to provide the best care possible for your patients. If you're attractive good for you, your job will be easier. For the rest of us, we need all the help we can get.

Channel D has become an important part of my communication puzzle, and I dread thinking what it would be like to practice without it. My patients are always ready with a joke about one of the videos that feature me. They’re better informed, more relaxed, happier, and they like me more.

I would respectfully suggest you apply some of the ideas I’ve mentioned above (apart from getting cancer to feel healthier), and also take a good hard look at Channel D (you can trial it for nothing) and see if you think it’s a better direction for your practice. I’m confident you’ll think it is.

By Dr. Brett Taylor