The importance of listening to and really hearing your patients

Nov. 15, 2011

By Denise Ciardello and Janice Janssen

The little boy sitting in the shopping cart was patting his mother’s arm. “Mommy, Mommy, Mommy,” he continued as his mom compared the prices of salted and unsalted green beans. “Mommy, Mommy, Mommy.” All of the other shoppers wanted to answer him just to stop his insistent plea for attention. Finally the mom asked, “What Jason?” and the little boy answered, “I love you, Mommy.” She smiled and continued shopping.

How many times have you wanted to call out, “Kaitlyn, Kaitlyn, Kaitlyn” to the store clerk as she finished a text instead of tending to you? Better yet, how many times have you actually yelled “representative!” while trying to get an answer on the insurance company’s automated system? You just wanted to know if occlusal guards are a covered benefit. Do you think your patients feel that frustration when you explain why the buildup wasn’t paid on their claim? Sometimes it’s just a straightforward question that the patient needs answered, so you try to decode the insurance and dental jargon that is Greek to the patient.

Audi partem aleram – Listen to the other side. Listening takes practice and skill. When you listen, truly listen to the person you are conversing with, you show compassion, respect, and understanding. When tempers flare, who really gets heard? What really gets resolved? History is filled with important figures that initially disagreed with one side, and then eventually became that side’s biggest supporter after listening and learning. St. Augustine scorned Christianity as a young man, but he listened and learned about the faith and eventually became one of the most important figures in the development of Western Christianity. Audi partem aleram.

Is there a difference between listening and hearing? You bet there is. Hearing involves your senses while listening involves your mind, spirit, and heart. You hear things all day, and some of these things you pay attention to and others are just white noise. For example, Dr. Molar is talking to Betty about her treatment, while in the background there is some commotion that is disturbing his concentration. When Betty asks what the prognosis is for the treatment he is recommending, he answers out of habit but is no longer engaged in the conversation. Something else has his attention, and he has moved from listening to hearing Betty. Dr. Molar has basically checked out of the conversation.

Mary is going over insurance benefits with her patient, John, who is having a hard time understanding that the insurance company will downgrade the posterior composite filling that he needs, so Mary launches into the explanation for the third time. Suddenly she feels a buzz in her pocket, and she becomes anxious to learn if her mother was able to pick up her sick daughter from school. Mary’s mind is now elsewhere and her heart is no longer in the conversation with John. She hears his questions, but she is not listening or feeling the exchange of information.

We are surrounded by things and noises that constantly distract and limit our ability to listen. Some people can concentrate on a conversation as well as decipher discussions and noises in the background. We see this mostly with the business team in dental offices, who are able to report everything going on in every room of the practice. This is more out of survival because they want to be prepared for whatever hits them next. They are talking to the insurance company but can hear the doctor telling a patient about the need for a crown. The team member can create a treatment plan and get the financial arrangements together while writing down the details from the phone call with the insurance company and waving to the patient who just walked in … oh, and changing the status of the appointment to notify the hygienist that her patient has arrived. This is not normal listening behavior, but it is why someone nicknamed front desk personnel a schizophrenic octopus. They can hear the voices and respond to every one of them.

Most people are able to comprehend when someone is truly not listening to what we’re saying or what we need. We can tell by their body language and we suddenly feel like white noise. Some things occur in a conversation that irritate people to the point they cut the discussion short. Some of these things are:
• Trying to finish the other person’s sentence
• Asking questions that will jump to the end of the story
• One-upping the speaker’s experience (“You think that is bad, well listen to what happened to me.”)
• Not looking the speaker in the eye; looking around the room for other people
• Texting, emailing, or other distracting activities

It is important to listen to the person who is talking to you. Try to make eye contact and tune out distractions. Let the person know that he or she has your full attention — not just your ears, but also your heart in the conversation. Parents often tell a child to “look me in the eye” when reprimanding or giving directions, so they know the child is paying attention. Let’s offer that same respect to our patients, friends, spouses, and kids — anyone who is taking the time to converse with us. We may not be able to force others to listen to us, but we can set an example by putting our heart into every dialogue and letting people know we are listening to them. Our heart is in the conversation.

Audi partem aleram
– Listen to the other side.

Denise Ciardello and Janice Janssen are respected professionals in the dental consulting industry and c-ofounders of Global Team Solutions, a practice management consulting firm specializing in team building and team training. They are the authors of the highly acclaimed book “OMG! Office Manager’s Guide.” You may contact them at: i[email protected].