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Part 2- Why did I say that? It's not what I meant

Larry GuzzardoRead Part 1- Why Did I say that? It's not what I meant.

It’s not just words.

The environment you are in contributes to your communication as well. The communication process rarely falls apart because of the words we use. Fortunately, using the right words isn’t a problem for most of us.

When communication is misinterpreted or misunderstood in adult-to-adult conversation it’s usually for different reasons. An effective environment for communication combines your physical surrounding along with your body language and tone of voice.  When communication falls apart it’s usually due to these three factors. Increasing your awareness about these communication issues is a powerful step to making sure we’re not doing something that inadvertently detracts from the message we’re trying to send.  

Prime examples are the embarrassment created when financial arrangements are not made in a private area, or when we attempt to communicate with a patient during a periodic check while the patient is laid back in the chair and not sitting in an upright position were they can talk while looking you in the eye. How about talking to patients while we are sitting and they are standing over us. Do you really think having them look down at us creates an equal environment or vice versa? Other points to keep in mind include the following.

  1. Smile. Not just because we work in dentistry, because maintaining a pleasant expression greatly enhances the tone of the conversation. A scowl, or the forlorn look of someone whose puppy just got run over, serves only as a hindrance. No one can resist a pleasant smile. Try it yourself. Smile at others and you’ll notice them smiling back at you!
  2. Make sure you keep an open posture when talking with another person. This means avoiding physical habits like crossing your arms even if you are cold. Although you may mean nothing by it, the message crossed arms sends is negative. It portrays you as an individual who is closed-minded to new ideas or suggestions. Many of us have to make a conscious effort not to cross our arms when standing since it’s such a natural act. Try holding an object in your hands, such as a pen or pad of paper, to eliminate this tendency.
  3. It should go without saying; that good eye contact is critical for good communication. You can’t gain acceptance of your recommendations or convince someone of your ideas unless you look them in the eyes.

    In dentistry we are involved with developing a relationship where our patients can gain trust in us. People often confuse communication with persuasion rather than taking an interactive approach. This can only happen face-to-face, through conversation, listening, and observing. It’s not just words. For instance, if your patients (or staff) are fidgeting, lip biting, or looking out the window when you present treatment, chances are you’re going to run into resistance. We need to learn to pay attention to non-verbal feedback, the types of looks we get and the reaction to comments we receive. We have to be constantly aware of how we are looking to other people. If you notice you are getting resistant non-verbal feedback, stop and attempt to get feedback before proceeding. Try something like “Am I making sense?” or “Am I describing this in a way that makes it easy to understand?”
  4. Be aware of your body language. Mirroring someone is a good thing to do. You don’t do this to manipulate someone; you’re doing this to develop rapport. If your patient has their legs crossed, at some point you want to do the same thing.
  5. Sometimes it’s how we say it, not what we say that is remembered. If you use a short tone, then what is received or communicated is “You don’t have time for me, you’re irritated with me,” even though this may not be true. Avoid sighs, yawns, and rushing.
  6. Being a good listener is important too. The process of listening includes stopping to pay attention when someone else is talking, making eye contact with the person who is speaking, and waiting until the one who is speaking is finished before responding. It’s a good practice to verify what you heard by stopping during the conversation to summarize and allow the speaker to clarify what they said if necessary. No one ever gets upset because you provided them with the opportunity to clarify. Understanding and mutual respect is promoted when it’s clear that the intended communication has been received. If you talk at someone, you are not communicating. Next time you find yourself in a conversation where you want to make sure there is absolute clarity, keep these pointers in mind.

In review. Here are some things you can do to better communication to patients, especially when presenting a dental treatment plan.

  • Position yourself to avoid distractions.
  • Use body language that shows you are engaged – for instance, maintain eye-contact, nod your head, raise your eyebrows and lean forward.
  • Avoid interrupting with questions or assumptions unless it’s to clarify a point.
  • Adjust your though speed (most people talk slower than most people think) and mentally concentrate on trying to figure what a person’s message is.
  • Smile. Be pleasant and positive.
  • Repeat the concern or response to enforce your listening skills.


As your ability to communicate clearly grows, so will your relationship with patients. Anticipating their questions in advance will keep you sounding professional and competent. Thinking of what you will say, and how you’ll say it, creates the environment for you to understand your patients and their needs better. When you are confident about your communication with patients, they are more likely to understand your clinical concerns and accept your treatment recommendations. ▪

Read Part 1- Why Did I say that? It's not what I meant.

Larry M. Guzzardo who has co-authored two books, “Powerful Practice” and “Getting Things Done” conducts in-office practice management consultations exclusively for dentists to enhance trust, create organization, increase profits, and to develop patient relationships that last. Larry has presented numerous workshops including, “Winning Patient Acceptance,” “Business Communication Systems,” and “The Leadership Challenge.” Larry can be reached at 800-782-5770 or [email protected] if you have further questions.