Communicating Effectively With Employees



Peter Gopal, PhD

Communicating Effectively With Employees

Good communications between an owner dentist and his staff is one of the key components to creating a dental practice that is harmonious and enjoyable. Research shows that more than 50% of a dentist’s time is spent communicating in some form or another. Is it any surprise then, that one of the most common employee complaints is poor communication? Typically, when poor communication exists, the office suffers high turnover rates, things fall through the cracks, errors mount, and doctor frustration increases.

The lack of management training in dental school leaves most dentists ill prepared for all the staff-related hurdles they will have to deal with when they leave school to start their own practices. So in order to become a truly effective owner and leader, they must actively hone and master their communications skills. By becoming a better communicator, they can build and sustain an office team that is both cooperative and productive.

This article will discuss some of the basic elements of communications, outline some pitfalls, and provide tips on how to better communicate with employees in various situations that arise in a dental office setting.

Getting Started
So how do you go about making the necessary communication changes? One of the first things you can do is to ask your employees for input. Ask your staff: “What do we need to do to communicate better as a team?” Ask them if your communications are clear. With more open 2-way communications, you will find opportunities to resolve problems stemming from inaccurate or inadequate communications.

When thinking of communications, we all immediately think of language. While command of language is certainly important, there are several other qualities as well that make someone a superb communicator.

Communication Basics
Joseph DeVito, in The Interpersonal Communication Book, states that 5 issues are important to becoming a good communicator: openness, empathy, supportiveness, positivity, and equality. These are qualities that you need to find within you before you can master the logistics of interpersonal communication.

Openness—You have to be approachable and you have to build a relationship with people so they feel comfortable bringing things to your attention. By sharing a personal anecdote or discussing hobbies and personal interests, you can help the employee better relate to you.

Empathy—Being empathetic is hard for anyone let alone those in a power position. It is important to be empathetic and not merely sympathetic when dealing with staff issues. “Put yourself in the other person’s shoes.” This is an old adage but truly the best way to understand your employees’ mind-set and rationale.

Supportiveness—Show that you are an understanding boss, not just a judge. If employees feel constantly criticized, they will be reluctant to share information or discuss problems.

Positivity—Don’t have a negative attitude. Who wants to talk to a boss who’s always a sourpuss? Remember to keep perspective and appreciate the many things that go right on any given day.

Equality—This is essential for sharing of information and effective teamwork. It indicates mutual respect. While it is understood that the dentist owner often has more schooling and years of experience, they need to value input from all employees at all levels and work with them as peers.

Listening is the first step toward effective communications.

Effective listening is one of the most important skills anyone can possess. It is also the communication skill we use the most in a day. Most of us spend 30% of our time speaking, yet more than 45% listening. Listening is much harder than speaking. We must keep our focus on the train of thought and pace of the speaker. Too often, we become passive listeners losing critical details that lead to misunderstandings.

We may “hear” but not always listen. When listening, it is important for us to be visually aware in addition to being auditorily alert. Things like body posture, gestures and other nonverbal behavior can say just as much as words.

We can think much faster than someone can speak. Most people can speak about 125 words per minute while our minds have the ability to understand someone speaking at upwards of 400 words per minute. With this time gap, we often let our minds wander to our next appointment or last night’s ball game. So in becoming a more effective leader in your dental office, give every one of your staff members an open and active ear.

Common Dental Office Communications Situations
Doctors often have difficulty dealing with the following 4 situations. Here are some tips and suggestions on how to communicate when faced with them.

Unclear Expectations
One of the first glaring problems many offices have is the lack of detailed human resource (HR) manuals and job descriptions.

The HR manual should include basic expectations and policies. It should also inform employees on how they are to communicate with you in various situations. Does your HR manual make it clear that employees must reach you live by phone to call out sick? If you don’t wish to be contacted by email or text, did you include that in your manual?

Unless new employees are apprenticed for a month or 2, a simple office walk through and a 30-minute speech will not be enough to give them the confidence and understanding to do their job well.

Take the time to write out a detailed job description and standard operating procedures for all complex tasks. Through this, you are setting up future employees to succeed and hopefully clearing up any ambiguities regarding their jobs.

Unclear Instructions
Many dentists are mystified as to why staff can’t follow simple instructions.

Clarity is a crucial factor on dentist/staff communication issues. The dentist asks his assistant to order more bleaching kits. Two weeks later, the kits haven’t arrived. When asked, the assistant says she didn’t realize it was a rush and only placed the order a few days ago. Whose fault was it? The dentist felt he was being clear while the assistant just heard another task to add to her long list of the things to get done. The dentist wasn’t clear about time frame and the assistant didn’t ask for clarification.

When requesting actions, be sure to cover all pertinent issues: what needs to be done, why, when, and how you’d like it done. Be sure not to leave out the crucial issues of priority and deadline. This will diminish the opportunity for misinterpretations.

Performance-related Communications
Giving Feedback—Providing feedback is one of the most important things you can do for your practice and staff. It takes courage and careful preparation.

Two things will make your feedback effective: immediacy and specificity.

1. Immediacy means addressing the issue as soon as possible. The more time we wait to reprimand or praise, the less effective the feedback will be.

2. Specificity is using clear language and substantiating with specific examples. Employees should be told how their actions have affected the practice. Be able to give specific dates and situations where their performance has been lacking. Support your feedback with data and evidence.

Appropriate Feedback Methods—Immediacy is vital in effective feedback. But that might not mean the very instant a problem happens, depending on where you are and who is around. If the problem happens in front of a patient or another employee, it is best to wait until you can speak to the person separately.

The second issue is using the appropriate vehicle to send this message. Today, email has become one of our favorite forms of communication. Without the aid of gesture and vocal tone, too many false inferences can be made from emails. Take the time to give feedback in person.

Dealing With Conflict
Conflict is inevitable in the work place. Avoiding conflict and not addressing the problem immediately will only result in bigger flare-ups in the future. Most of us know that we should listen well and try to remain calm during a conflict. Here are a few additional things you could consider:

Ask Clarifying Questions—People try to deal with conflicts by making strong statements instead of asking clarifying questions. Validate or nullify your assumptions before you plunge in. Using questions like “I heard you say such and such. Is that what you meant?” will encourage the other person to clarify the issue and provide information in a rational, nonemotional matter. Use “I” and “we” statements rather than “you” statements. Any “you” statement only assigns blame. “I” and “we” statements help solve the problem by partnering with the other person.

By asking clarifying questions, you stop misleading interpretations and work collaboratively toward a solution.

Don’t Get Stuck in a Fixed Image—When employees do something or say something especially wrong, we tend to linger on it well after the conflict is finished. By this, we’ve created a fixed negative image of them. No matter what they do or say after the fact, we can’t seem to let that flawed image go. We essentially trap them in this perception with no hope for further growth. If they truly make efforts to improve on that fault, recognize the change. Be flexible regarding your perception of an individual and be willing to alter your opinion.

Where Are They Coming From?—The way employees act in a certain situation is most likely a direct result of their previous experiences. Maybe an old boss wanted it done that way or perhaps their social or cultural background may explain why they chose to act in a certain way. Try to truly comprehend where employees are coming from so that this issue can be dealt with properly.

If you are unable to resolve a conflict and the conflict only seems to be escalating, consider hiring a mediator or a counselor with a background in negotiations and conflict resolution.

Closing Comment
Improvements in communications can reduce turnover and create a harmonious, organized office where everyone pulls together in alignment to achieve common goals.

Peter Gopal, PhD, is the president of Visionary Management, a practice management consulting firm based in Pennsylvania that helps dentists increase production and create business systems to improve practice profitability. Peter has more than a decade of corporate experience at a Fortune 500 firm and is a graduate of the Wharton Management Program. Since 1999, he has served as the business director of a dental practice operated with his wife. He obtained his PhD in engineering from Cornell University. He can be reached at (215) 295-6975 or at

Disclosure: Dr. Gopal reports no disclosures.