How to deal with conflict in the dental practice

Conflict happens ... we all work in an office, some big and some small, and it is a fact of life that when people work together, there will be conflict. So whether it’s the dental office, the faculty office, or a sales office that we dental assistants call our home away from home, we need to be prepared for periodic conflicts and how to handle them.

Jun 18th, 2012

Conflict happens ...

We all work in an office, some big and some small, and it is a fact of life that when people work together, there will be conflict. So whether it’s the dental office, the faculty office, or a sales office that we dental assistants call our home away from home, we need to be prepared for periodic conflicts and how to handle them.

In all cases of conflict, and there are too many to discuss here, conflicting thoughts and assumptions are usually at the core. These thoughts and assumptions often get in the way of positive action and cooperation. Clear-cut lines of communication often help to squash conflict before it starts.

These are some of the typical areas of conflict, particularly in a dental office:

  • Misunderstanding“I thought you MEANT ...”
  • Lack of communication“I thought you KNEW ...”
  • Controversy“I thought that was MY JOB/YOUR JOB.”

Misunderstanding — If you’re the one in charge and you give an instruction, particularly in a new situation or to a new employee, you might want to conclude by saying, “OK, just to be sure I’ve been clear, tell me what you’re going to do.” If the other person isn’t able to give you what you want, instead of repeating what you’ve just said, perhaps you could say something like, “Sorry, I guess I didn’t say it clearly. Let me try again.” I’m not trying to put words in your mouth. I’m just trying to give you the idea that there are positive and thoughtful ways to find out what others are thinking, and ways to communicate with them to avoid conflict or hurt feelings. Sometimes we think we’re communicating clearly, but we’re not.

Another effective exercise is to restate what you think the other person is saying. “What I’m hearing you say is ...” Then the person can correct what’s inaccurate and you can both be on the same page.

Lack of communication — The absence of clear expectations and job descriptions (which is pretty common in dentistry) can lead to a situation where “everybody knows” how to do it step-by-step, except for that certain someone who doesn’t do it your way and may not know about a certain step you think is important. By communicating task procedures in writing in advance, you’ll have one less thing to have conflict about. Put the procedures in a book in a place where everyone can review them. Write out job descriptions and don’t leave anyone out. If there are three or four assistants in the practice, each one may have slightly different duties. Make sure that each job description is adequately covered.

Controversy — Is there anything that causes more sulking and ill will than those who think they’re doing someone else’s work, or those who believe someone is infringing on their territory? It happens a lot in dental offices, doesn’t it? Everything from the front office staff cleaning a treatment room, to back office staff pulling charts or making phone calls, to a hygienist polishing a patient's teeth. The attitude of “that’s not my job” or “why should I do their work?” can cause resentment in the work environment.

In a perfect world, we truly would be a dental team — helping out wherever needed, regardless of our job description. One of the best ways to foster a team attitude is to model it — be the one to start it in your office. Be willing to clean a treatment room or bag some instruments if the staff is running behind. It’s amazing the effect that can have on office morale.

As with so many areas of controversy, advance planning, thoughtfulness, and empathy might solve the problem or divert it completely. Empathy plays a huge role in effectively dealing with conflict. Some of us are naturally empathetic and others need to develop empathy, or at least take clues from the experts. Being able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and respond with that in mind can go a long way in minimizing fallout when conflict happens.

There’s an excellent article by Dr. Rhonda Savage in the May/June issue of the Dental Assistant Journal about conflict resolution. (Dr. Savage is the CEO of Miles Global, formerly Linda Miles & Associates.) It’s information that you can use to build your leadership skills as a manager, or to help all staff members become better listeners and communicators.

Take a little time to read this article from the Journal on our website at www.dentalassistant.org. (The Journal is now online, and for the rest of the year is available to everyone, not just members and subscribers.)

So when I think of conflict, I try to think of solutions and prevention. I think of what I’d like if I were a player in the conflict. Sometimes I think I can use the advice of the experts. I know it’s important that we don’t let conflicts go unresolved, because we all want our home away from home to be a place we can enjoy!

Claudia Pohl, CDA, RDA, FADAA, BVEd
President, American Dental Assistants Association

The people who make dental assisting a profession

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