It's not what you say, but how you say it
YOU KNOW THEM: the patients who continue bad oral hygiene habits despite your best efforts. It’s not that your instructions were unclear or delivered poorly. Why do patients resist our instructions to change or our well developed treatment plans? There are those who, no matter what, are not going to buy in to change. However, increased verbal and nonverbal communication competence can net you better outcomes overall. These skills help to build practitioner-patient (as well as team) relationships.
Communication has three overarching goals. The first goal is to create shared meaning. You know what you mean, but does the other person know what you mean? What barriers exist that create confusion when verbally relaying information? The second goal is to express understanding. This includes letting the other individual know you are aware of how they are feeling in relation to the situation (in pain, frustrated, anxious, relieved, etc.). The third goal is to relay value and respect. Think of someone speaking to you and their tone sounding aloof or disrespectful. You will not hear what they are saying as much as you are thinking about their attitude towards you. Communicating value and respect is typically accomplished through nonverbal messages—how you say what you are saying.
These goals sound overly simplistic, but if they were easy to achieve we would experience little to no conflict or misunderstanding. Self-awareness is crucial to becoming a better communicator. It begins with realizing we don’t always hit the mark, then trying to reverse engineer our thought process to see the situation from the other’s perspective. When we do, we are better able to formulate effective responses and deliver clear instructions.
To begin on this path of communication awareness, answer the following by rating your personal ability on a scale from 0 (no ability) to 7 (great ability) for each skill statement below.
- Understanding another’s nonverbal messages.
- Asserting yourself (without being aggressive).
- Using language appropriately.
- Using/managing your own body language.
- Overall ability to listen to others well.
- Put yourself in another’s shoes.
- Persuading others.
You’ve heard the saying “It’s not what you say, but how you say it.” Well, it is true. In face-to-face communication, 68% to 93% of a message’s meaning is nonverbal. Your tone of voice, pitch, rate of speed, and volume affect up to 33% of the meaning; the visual, including visual aids and body language, make up the rest. (1)
When communicating the “why” to a patient, your best course of action will be to focus on the “how.” Show the patient a process, problem, or solution by demonstrating the following: “What I am observing is . . . if [we take this action]. . . then [this will happen].” Back up your verbal communication with photographs, mirror images, numbers if finances are involved, and your own facial expressions and gestures while building rapport through vocal cues that are relational rather than technical.
1. Harris TE, Sherblom JC. Small Group and Team Communication. 5th ed. London, England: Pearson; 2010.
Alexa Chilcutt, PhD, is a faculty member and the director of the public speaking program at the University of Alabama. With expertise in team communication and leadership, she has published in the Journal of the American Dental Association, AGDImpact, MedEdPortal, and is a regular contributor to the GAGD Explorer newsletter. Dr. Chilcutt is a professional speaker and National PACE CE provider through Symphony Dental in Atlanta. Contact her at [email protected].