The 7 habits of highly effective dental assistants

Sept. 17, 2012
What makes an effective dental assistant? Claudia Pohl, CDA, RDA, FADAA, BVEd, president of the American Dental Assistants Association, says you will be an asset to your dental office if you follow these seven rules.

What makes an effective dental assistant? Have you ever wondered why some excel at their work and others bounce from practice to practice and feel unfulfilled? What’s the difference between what I call a “$5 dental assistant,” and someone who is valued in the practice? Stephen Covey addresses this in his book “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.” What do his 7 habits look like when applied to dental assisting?

1. Be proactive

As dental assistants we work as part of a team, but we work for someone else. It is very easy to fall into the trap of feeling as if we have no control over our work and, in turn, our career — and that can bleed into our view of our life. A proactive assistant is one who takes responsibility – for his or her life, choices, and career. Taking responsibility actually empowers a person. Proactive people tend to accept others (and their choices) as they are. They have the confidence to make choices for themselves, even when their peers may not agree with them.

The opposite of proactive is reactive (acting afterwards instead of before), inactive, or passive. Reactive people are dependent on the circumstances around them. They rely on others in their decision-making, and are easily affected by others’ opinions. You may hear a passive person say things such as, “I can’t do that,” “That won’t work,” or “I don’t have a choice.” They blame others for their choices and mistakes (“I did that because …” “I couldn’t help that because …” or “It’s not my fault because …”). While on the surface it seems like this gets the person off the hook, in reality, the reactive person is letting others take control of his or her life.

2. Begin with the end in mind

A highly effective dental assistant has a vision for his or her life. Have you thought about your career goals? Where do you want to be in three years … five years … 20 years? A highly effective assistant knows where he or she is going and works to make that happen. Why are you in dentistry? What do you want to accomplish? Do you want to earn a license or credential? Get advanced training? Continue your education?

If you haven’t given this much thought, you run the risk of looking back in 20 years and wondering how you got where you are — this gives others the power to shape your career path because you’re not in touch with who you are or what your goals are. Stephen Covey has said, “If your ladder is not leaning against the right wall, every step you take gets you to the wrong place faster.”

Perhaps it’s time to develop a personal mission statement that focuses on what you want to do with your career. This could include your philosophy of practice — what kind of dental practice do you want to work in — size, type, and delivery of care, etc.?

3. Put first things first

A highly effective dental assistant has the ability to say NO. Why on earth would you want to say no? A highly effective dental assistant knows that life balance is really important to overall health. While there are lots of things you could spend your time on, you need to decide (based on your personal mission, values, and priorities) how you want to spend your time. When you make decisions based on these values and priorities, there is no guilt or conflict about the right choice.

Have you ever been around someone who doesn’t know how to say no? These people may be doing too many things and not doing any of them well. Or perhaps they’re neglecting other aspects of their life, such as their physical or emotional well-being, or even their own family. Many times this comes from not knowing who they are, where they’re going, or how to get there.

4. Think win-win

Dentistry is a team environment — or at least it’s supposed to be. But how many times do those in the office become territorial, catty, backbiting, or focused on production instead of the patients? This becomes a win-lose situation, doesn’t it?

A win-win viewpoint is about seeing life and situations with a paradigm of “We can all get what we want.” This frame of mind looks for the mutual benefit in situations. Instead of trying to “win” (which implies that someone “loses”), a highly effective dental assistant looks for agreements and solutions. In order to be able to do this, though, you have to be true to your feelings and values and be able to express them with consideration of others, and believe that everyone can win.

5. Seek first to understand, then to be understood

Communication in dentistry is huge, isn’t it? We need to effectively communicate with patients, the doctor, and our coworkers. But it can get a bit tangled up sometimes. We need to remember that we are in a profession of service, and as such we need to be willing to put the needs of others (especially the patients) ahead of our own.

When we insist on being right or making our point (perhaps because we don’t agree), we do so at the risk of ignoring or minimizing the other person.

When we can really engage and listen empathetically to the patient, doctor, or coworker, we have an increased ability to really understand their point of view and feelings. But it’s easy to think that if we let them know we understand, it means we agree with them, but that’s not the case.

6. Synergize

Synergy can be energizing. What does it mean? The definition is to cooperate with another to remedy something, and two or more people working together to create a result not obtainable by one person. That’s an exciting concept, isn’t it? When it’s working, it is! Some of the most fulfilling things I’ve been involved in have happened as a result of synergy.

We have the opportunity to work synergistically in dentistry all the time. In order to do this, though, one must be open to others’ suggestions and new solutions (sometimes it’s the doctor who’s not open, though, huh?). It requires the understanding that different is good, and that because of these differences we each bring something different to the table. Together, the solution and ideas are better, and the dental practice will be better for it too.

7. Sharpen the saw

There is reference to this principle in the Scriptures, and popular authors have addressed it too. The concept is that we work more effectively when we’re fresh and sharp. How can we expect to treat our patients and coworkers with consideration, looking for mutual benefit in conflict, when we don’t take care of ourselves and we are out of balance?

What does “sharpening the saw” look like? It will be different for each of us, depending on how you treat yourself. You may need to pamper yourself or challenge yourself. Physically it may mean eating better, exercising, or resting. Socially it may mean spending time on your relationships. Spiritually you may need to spend time in nature or appreciate art or practice prayer or meditation.

As it relates to your career, it may mean staying current through continuing education or advancing your career through education, volunteering, or becoming involved in your professional organization.

So how do you measure up? How effective are you? Do you take responsibility for your choices? Do you know where you’re heading? Are you consciously aware of your priorities and values? Do you look for ways for everyone to get what they want? Are you open to others’ suggestions and able to work cooperatively with them? Do you take time to keep yourself sharp and in balance?

Being a “highly effective” dental assistant will make you an asset to any office and increase your value. You’ll be a more well rounded person outside the office too.

Claudia Pohl, CDA, RDA, FADAA, BVEd

President, American Dental Assistants Association

The people who make dental assisting a profession