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5 ways to handle conflict in the dental office

Aug. 24, 2020
Conflict is bound to arise during uncertain times. COVID-19 is causing dental professionals and patients alike to make unprecedented changes in the way they approach dental care. Dr. Randall Ford has suggestions that may help.

Dentistry is facing challenging times unlike any I have seen in my nearly four decades of working in the profession. Both patients and dental professionals are being asked to make unprecedented changes in the way they approach dental care as a result of COVID-19 and its associated stresses. I want to suggest five things that you can do to help handle the conflict that can arise in and out of the dental office during uncertain times.

The first is to realize that the person you are in conflict with may be as fearful of uncertainty as you are. In George Lucas’ “Star Wars,” Master Yoda said: “Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering.” Fear often makes us react irrationally rather than leading us to make reasonable decisions. Fear can cause us to be short with one another and to assume the worst in them. Try not to jump to conclusions, and also be sure to give the other person the benefit of the doubt.

Second, remember that there can be more than one right answer. My dad owned a security company, and he said that he would often tell his employees what needed to get done, and then he got out of their way and let them do it. They might not have done things the way he would have done them, but it didn’t matter as long as the job got done. Just because someone doesn’t do something precisely your way doesn’t mean that it is wrong. In dentistry, this can be a little difficult at times due to regulatory expectations but try to give leeway where it is possible.

Third, don’t forget that just because you have the right to do something doesn’t make it the right thing to do. Sometimes we forget that our team members and patients have rights too, and that exercising our rights can violate theirs or at the very least lead to a less-than-optimal outcome. As an employer or dental professional, you have many rights, but don’t always insist on them because it could harm your relationships with your team and your patients. Although your work has to be technically good to meet the standard of care, ultimately the relationships you build with your patients and staff are the most important aspects of your business.

The fourth and one of the most important things you can do to handle conflict is to work together and collaborate to find solutions to problems rather than trying to win. Hopefully, you have hired intelligent people to work with you, so look to them for input to solve any conflicts that may come up in the office. The Thomas Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument (TKI) describes a model for the five ways people handle conflict: (1) compete, (2) compromise, (3) avoid, (4) accommodate, and (5) collaborate. All of these responses are appropriate in the right circumstances, but they have very different outcomes.

Competition: You either win or lose. This is also known as a zero sum. The more I win, the more you lose. This method is good for one party and bad for the other, and it is also potentially bad for the relationship.

Compromise: Both parties give up a little of what they want in order to reach a quick and acceptable arrangement.

Avoidance: You don’t really care about the outcome or the relationship. You just don’t want to be bothered.

Accommodation: The relationship is much more important to you than the issue at hand. My father-in-law used to describe this as going along to get along.

Collaboration: You work together to come up with the best solution for all involved. This takes more time than the other options, but it can yield a better result. By working together you can share ideas and arrive at solutions neither party would have thought of on their own. This is called expanding the pie. You get a bigger and better opportunity for respectful resolution to the situation in which you find yourself.

The last thing that I would recommend is to remember that you live in a small community. People know each other even when living in large cities. I would suggest that you value the relationships you have over results if you can’t have both. Collaboration can help you achieve both, but sometimes it is better to lose the battle and live to win the war. To me, winning the war means getting along with those around me so that everyone can work and live together respectfully and in peace.

Author’s note: This article is adapted from other works of the author.

Editor’s note: This article first appeared in Through the Loupes newsletter, a publication of the Endeavor Business Media Dental Group. Read more articles at this link and subscribe here.

Randall (Randy) Ford, DDS, is a graduate student at Jiann-Ping Hsu College of Public Health with a concentration in leadership. He has a master’s degree in conflict management and is an entrepreneur and health-care administrator. For the past 30 years, Dr. Ford has practiced in and owned multiple dental facilities and two dental assisting schools. He is the executive director of the Tennessee Dental Society of Anesthesiology.