Communication is both art and science. As support specialists, dental assistants communicate daily with clients, coworkers and professionals, so they should be comfortable and competent communicating confidently. But while connecting with others comes naturally for some people, it’s harder for others. The good news for future dental assistants is that the communication skills necessary for success can be learned and cultivated through education and experience. And there’s no better time to start than now.
The Communication Process
Communication is the exchange of information. It’s a two-way process with several essential components, including:
- The message, or the data to be conveyed
- The mode of transmission – verbal, non-verbal or written
- The reception – how the information causes someone to react
- Feedback – the response to the message
When any single aspect is deficient, communication suffers.
Characteristics of Good Communication
For communication to be effective, it needs to be considerate and clear. People are different, and how they perceive each other colors all communication. To effectively frame a message so that others want to listen, the first step is to be courteous by understanding the audience.
Dental assistants have a clear role in an office setting, yet within that context, they have distinctly different relationships with the many people they interact within a given day. The nature of those relationships and the boundaries that define them are the driving force behind how dental assistants should approach interpersonal communication.
Communication is a valuable skill, but it’s not one size fits all. Dental assistants communicate with a broad age of people from diverse backgrounds and with varying degrees of professional authority. Who are they? What do they care about, and what do they expect from a dental assistant? By carefully tailoring conversation and body language to fit the expectations and the communication style of the audience, dental assistants can better make connections.
Who Will a Dental Assistant Communicate with Most on an Average Workday?
Dental assistants tend to communicate with clients, peers, supervisors, and dental professionals.
Dental assistants are extensions of the professionals they work for, so patients see them as educators and guides. They expect a dental assistant to be knowledgeable and courteous, friendly, kind, helpful and caring, but within the boundaries of a professional, therapeutic relationship. When it comes to patient-staff communication, patients are in charge, and dental assistants should avoid too much personal disclosure. However, a dental assistant has the authority to speak based on their experience and knowledge of the services patients seek.
Dental assistants work with people of both greater and lesser skill, but relationships are more likely to develop between those of similar social and professional standing. It’s not unusual. Birds of a feather really do flock together, so the closest relationships dental assistants have at work tend to be with peers.
As professional equals, no one person in a peer-to-peer relationship is responsible for setting the tone for communication. But when friendships develop, they can cause professional conflict. Boundaries are less clear than they are in a client-assistant relationship. It takes excellent communication skills to navigate the fine line between professional and personal interactions.
Dental assistants ultimately work under the supervision of a professional, but they are also responsible to middle managers who oversee day-to-day operations in a dental office. Whether it’s with a non-medical administrator or a dental hygienist with managerial responsibilities, communication is necessarily different than it is with peers because supervisors have authority. Feeling at ease offering suggestions and initiating conversations with persons of influence at work takes times. There’s always room for self-expression and even disagreement, but listening is critical, and the tone of communication should always remain respectful.
As the ultimate authority in a dental office, professionals command respect because of their education and experience. Leadership styles vary, however, and communication can feel awkward until the dental assistant and the dentist get to know each other a little better. The dental assistant should let the professionals take the lead in conversation until a level of mutual comfort grows.
A dental assistant has a responsibility to understand the communication process, the people to whom they are speaking and how to facilitate meaningful conversation most effectively. Communication is a skill that begins with courtesy and relationship awareness. Communication ends with mutual understanding. But for clarity, it best starts with a technique called “active listening.”
Active listening is more than just hearing what someone says; it’s trying to understand what they mean. It involves evaluating both words and body language to ensure their meaning is understood. It’s a therapeutic technique that dental assistants are taught to use when working with patients, but it’s a skill that serves them well in any relationship.
For example, a patient may say they’re comfortable with an impending dental procedure. But words spoken hesitantly plus physical restlessness signal the patient may be fearful. Once they understand the problem, a dental assistant can use a variety of communication techniques to encourage meaningful dialogue, including:
- Sharing observations
- Asking open-ended questions
- Exploring feelings
- Offering validation
Communication Skills for Dental Assistants
A dental assistant can project good communication skills by sharing observations, asking open-ended questions, exploring emotions, and offering validation.
Nervous patients may hesitate to ask questions for fear of seeming uninformed. Making gentle observations about changes in their demeanor brings attention to the issue and opens the door for discussion. Commenting that they seem “a little nervous,” for example, allows a patient to confirm their feelings without risking embarrassment. The dental assistant can then commiserate with the patient about anxiety in the dental chair and offer a word of sympathy to help them relax.
The same technique can be used with co-workers. Asking an overwhelmed colleague if they need help is tricky because few people like to admit they do. But saying “Wow, the workload is heavy today,” allows a peer to vent frustrations and helps the dental assistant better identify how they can help without appearing critical.
Asking Open-ended Questions
Closed-ended questions that require short answers slam the door on communication. Open-ended questions bring up broad topics and encourage patients to elaborate. Asking an elderly patient if they can eat meat and nuts without their dentures tells a dental assistant if they’re at risk for protein deficiency. But asking the same patient to describe more about what they eat at meals yields more useful information. It allows the patient to relate, for example, that they have protein-rich milk and eggs every morning for breakfast.
Dental patients may react emotionally to sensitive issues. Losing a front tooth, for example, can be cosmetically embarrassing, especially for a child. But it helps if they can talk out their feelings with someone knowledgeable on the subject.
Similarly, supporting a coworker who seems lost in a new position enhances peer relationships in the workplace. But few colleagues will admit to difficultly adjusting to new responsibilities for fear of losing a promotion. Sharing observations about how they feel, asking the right questions, and allowing them to express their feelings privately may help them gain a new perspective on the situation.
As a therapeutic communication technique, validation is recognizing that people have the right to feel the way they do about things, but without necessarily agreeing with them or condoning unreasonable behavior. For example, it’s normal for a patient who’s unhappy with a bill they can’t pay to feel upset. But before a dental assistant can help them find a solution, they need to help them move beyond strong emotions. Recognizing their feelings, exploring the source, and allowing unhappy patients to express themselves without judgment defuses tough situations. When unhappy patients feel heard and understood, they become calmer, more rational and more able to make positive decisions.
Validation is also a technique employees and supervisors can use to better communicate with each other. For example, a supervisor who notices a dental assistant is irritable with patients, needs to address the behavior. But if the problem is work-related, validating their feelings before trying to correct their behavior is necessary to find an appropriate and lasting solution.
Staff members can also use validation to better relate to their supervisors. In the face of an unfavorable review, an employee could walk away feeling hurt by criticism, or they can acknowledge deficits in their performance and ask for help moving forward.
Factors beyond anyone’s control can scuttle communication, but it’s critical to avoid these common traps. They include negative stereotypes, stonewalling, a lack of empathy, negative body language, poor grammar, and poor spelling.
Stereotyping reinforces negative impressions about people, and colors communication. In dentistry, for example, patients with decaying teeth may be seen as negligent about oral hygiene when nothing could be further from the truth. A coworker who’s always late might seem irresponsible, but what if it’s due to a sick child? A dental assistant should reserve judgment.
Stonewalling is a nonproductive form of conflict avoidance. Giving a coworker who’s slighted you the silent treatment may avoid short-term arguments, but it leaves them feeling confused and emotionally disconnected. Issues with peers should be promptly and respectfully confronted.
Lack of Empathy
Empathy is the ability to see things from another’s perspective. It’s as much a skill as a feeling. Empathy among coworkers helps them better understand each other’s needs, and it’s a must when it comes to clients. Visits to the dentist are particularly stressful for some people, and that can provoke unpleasant emotions from panic to anger. Dental assistants must understand the source of those feelings before they can address them.
Negative Body Language
Body language is an integral part of non-verbal communication. It’s subtle, but it says volumes. Slouching, for example, suggests to a client that a dental assistant is disinterested while avoiding eye contact can indicate fear or disdain. Being conscious of the negative signals body language can convey helps avoid misunderstandings.
Poor Grammar and Spelling
Whether verbally or in writing, a large part of a dental assistant’s job is to convey information clearly and professionally. Sloppy grammar gives clients a negative impression of the entire team, and errors in spelling can lead to medical mistakes. “Dysphasia,” for example, is a speech disorder while “dysphagia,” is difficulty swallowing. These are two very different conditions that could each have a significant impact on dental care. If grammar and spelling are weak points for a dental assistant, word processing tools can help.
Practical communication skills are essential for all dental professionals, but as the point of first contact for patients, they’re particularly important for dental assistants. There’s much more to learn, but ultimately, it’s practice that makes communication perfect.
Interested in learning more about how to become a dental assistant? Do you need to become a dental assistant first? The Dental Assistant training program at Meridian College provides extensive hands-on training including a school externship at a dental office where you will assist the dentist in treating actual patients.
Contact Meridian College today to learn more about becoming a dental assistant.