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How to manage conflict in the dental office

Date: June 2022

Author: Louise Sinclair

In the hectic environment of a dental practice, tensions sometimes run high for both patients and staff. For the practice owner, the resulting conflict can make an already stressful job even more challenging. Here’s how to successfully navigate conflict in the dental office and restore peace to your practice…

Conflict between employees

Intrapersonal conflicts between employees can drag the entire practice down. A  2018 article in the Dimensions of Dental Hygiene journal found that office conflict impacted performance, morale and job satisfaction, even for employees who weren’t involved. Tension between staff members is often obvious to patients too. At best, it can make them feel awkward or nervous, and at worst, it can compromise the quality of their care. Either way, it also damages your reputation. 

The following strategies can help to minimize the impact of conflict between your staff members. 

1. Focus on prevention

As we know, prevention is the best cure. You can reduce the risk of conflict in your team by proactively creating an environment conducive to good working relationships. That means setting clear expectations of conduct, creating positive working conditions, and encouraging collaboration within the team. 

2. Prioritize culture in hiring 

It’s easier to develop somebody’s skills than it is to change their attitude, so place a strong emphasis on culture fit when hiring. Have prospective employees work trial shifts as part of the interview process to see how they work within your team, and ask your current staff for their input when making the hiring decision. 

3. Don’t distance yourself  

In the midst of a hectic work schedule, it can be tempting to keep your distance and hope small problems resolve on their own. Some do, but others unfortunately fester. At the first sign of conflict, make a habit of checking in with each party separately to understand their grievances and desired outcomes. In the majority of cases, team members just want the opportunity to vent their frustrations and feel supported by their employer. But in the case of a more serious conflict, you have the opportunity to help your staff come to a resolution before things escalate. 

4. Provide opportunities for conflict resolution 

Make sure that your team members have accessible channels for dealing with workplace problems so that they don’t feel the need to “bottle it up”. You might do this by making conflict resolution a regular fixture on team meeting agendas, by providing a system for anonymous feedback, or by implementing an “open door” policy for complaints or issues. 

5. Consider formal training 

If you notice any recurring themes in your office conflicts, consider formal training to help your employees make improvements. Common problems that can benefit from structured training include communication, conflict resolution, team management, and stress.

6. Enforce boundaries 

There are some sources of office conflict that are simply unacceptable, such as slacking off, gossiping, or bullying. Such behaviors are truly toxic to team morale and performance, so don’t hesitate to reinforce your expectations at the earliest sign. This gives struggling employees the chance to ask for support, and gives troublesome employees the impetus to correct their behavior. 

Employee-patient conflict 

Conflict between employees and patients is a widespread issue, particularly in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic. There can be a vast range of potential causes, including: 

  • Anxiety, fear, pain or distress. 

  • Miscommunication.

  • Unrealistic expectations.  

  • Cultural differences. 

  • Workplace or personal stressors. 

  • Frustration arising from systemic issues, e.g., treatment delays.

If the patient-provider relationship breaks down, both parties suffer. The patient may feel unable to get the care they need, while the dental professional can be left dealing with stress, possible complaints, and reputational damage. The following strategies can help to keep the relationship on the right track. 

1. Monitor patient satisfaction

As with your employees, continually monitor for the early signs of a patient conflict and address them proactively. One way to do this is by soliciting regular feedback from your patients. Put comment boxes in prominent areas and on your website, conduct regular patient surveys, and make a point of asking every patient how they felt their appointment went. You’ll be able to tackle any minor issues before they become major ones, and you might even spot recurring problems that need to be improved. 

2. Build a rapport 

Building a positive relationship with your patient means that conflicts and misunderstandings are less likely to occur. When they do, the patient is more likely to give you the benefit of the doubt and work towards a resolution if they already have a solid relationship with you. 

Earn your patient’s trust by taking a genuine interest in them. Some dentists like to note down personal details in the patient’s file, such as kids, work or vacation plans, so that they can enquire at their next visit. You should also make an effort to get your patient’s input at every stage of treatment and give them the opportunity to voice their wants, needs and concerns. Not only does this improve the chances of compliance, it also shows the patient that you respect them as an individual and as a partner in their oral care. 

3. Invest in communication training 

At the heart of many employee-patient conflicts is a communication failure. Examples on the employee side might include: 

  • Using technical jargon. 

  • Talking over, interrupting or cutting a discussion short. 

  • Using a harsh, scolding or annoyed tone. 

  • Failing to show empathy in a difficult conversation. 

  • Poor body language, e.g., not making eye contact, doing other tasks while the patient talks. 

Given how many conflicts could be avoided or de-escalated with communication skills like empathy or active listening, it is well worth investing in training for yourself and your team. 

4. Manage expectations

Unrealistic or unmet expectations are a major source of patient conflict. Perhaps the patient is disappointed by a failed restoration, or doesn’t get the whitening results they saw online, or doesn’t realize the extent of the work needed to achieve their desired result. 

This type of conflict can largely be avoided by setting clear expectations from the beginning. Explain to your patients exactly what a standard course of treatment entails and what typical results look like, and explain how specific characteristics and behaviors can impact the results. Emphasize that it may be necessary to change the treatment plan and explain possible scenarios that could arise to avoid surprises down the line. Detail exactly how this would change the time, cost and outcome of the treatment, and agree to consult with the patient before making any changes. 

5. Address issues head-on

If a conflict does arise, the best thing to do is address it head-on. Be open to hearing the patient’s concerns and acknowledge their distress or disappointment, even if you’re not at fault. Give them space to vent and offer them resolutions if possible. If they’re not open to discussing the issue in the moment, checking in at a later date can let them know that you value them as a patient and take their concerns seriously.

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