When we meet a new patient for the very first time, what matters the most?
1. Showing we are skilled, experienced, and capable?
2. Showing we are trustworthy and likable?
Most of us, due to our heavy left-brain oriented education and training (and therefore left brain bias), assume expertise, experience, and competence matter most to patients. And this is simply because WE value them highly and to a large degree wear our knowledge like ribbons and badges of honor.
After all (our thinking goes), if patients are going to trust us, they first need to know that we have the skills to properly address their needs – right?
This line of of logic feels comfortable to us. It also supports our ego, and it makes us feel more safe and less vulnerable when we quickly claim the superior social status “expert” role in a relationship.
But in spite of our feeling more comfortable in approaching people this way, it is problematic on a behavioral level -particularly when we want a person to make an expensive, time consuming, and often emotionally threatening decision.
This is because how others INITIALLY judge us has very little to do with whether or not we seem by them to be skilled or competent. Instead, most strangers to us (and typicallly within the first 7 seconds) subconsciously ask themselves only one question upon meeting us:
“Can I trust this person?”
So, a sense of trustworthiness (meaning warmth and likability at this point) trumps credentials and even experience IN THE VERY BEGINNING of a relationship. This holds true because from a brain evolution perspective, our lower brain’s functional needs must be met before the higher brain functions can kick in (where the finer aspects of discernment occur).
But our natural likability can quickly lose its impact in a dental office environment, especially when there’s no substance behind the initially warm and seemingly safe surface. And THAT is when our care, skill, and judgement comes in to play. Once we have allowed our patients to ASSUME we are trustworthy, then we must PROVE it.
We must EARN their trust.
It is sometimes helpful to think of trust as a two-sided coin, with ‘Trust’ on one side, and ‘Distrust’ on the other. And that when we are talking about trust, we are really talking about how our patients manage their vulnerability.
So, on the ‘Trust’ side of the coin, the person is subconsciously saying to themselves, “I will trust my safety, and maybe even my heath to the actions and thinking of this person, something about it feels ok to me.”
On the other hand, when a person is functioning on the ‘distrust’ side, they are saying to themselves, “Something is not right here, and I am not sure what it is, but I am not going to allow this person to get too close to me emotionally or physically.”
Now, you can see that our credentials on the wall and even our staff’s gushing descriptions of our abilities will mean next to nothing to a new person in our practice until we have demonstrated that we are able to build and maintain great helping (from their perspective) relationships with them, and they feel safe.
So how do we do this? How can we consistently project likability and trustworthiness with new patients? By properly using the Co-discovery process on an emotional level.
And what is the most important thing to “co-discover” in the beginning?
How they FEEL about what they remember, what they know, and what are learning.
(Notice that I did not say “that they have a 5mm pocket in the disto-facial of #30.)
We emotionally co-discover how others feel by listening more and talking less.
We emotionally co-discover by asking open-ended / non-leading questions.
We emotionally co-discover by maintaining eye contact and observing how they are responding. Relief? Surprise? Guilt? Shame? Fear? Despair?
And we then support them, and make them feel emotionaly safe by stopping to acknowledge and explore what they are feeling and why. And then when we do speak, we don’t offer advice until we are asked.
Often times, what people seek the most is feeling understood.
Listening, observing, and exploring in this fashion, along with the delaying of advice-giving until the most emotionally appropriate time, shows that we sincerely care about them as a person, via DEMONSTRATING DEFERENCE, and by honoring THEIR SENSE OF AGENCY with regard to being able to make good decisions.
Consequently, this approach strategically avoids the creation of a co-dependent relationships. And this is because when we offer advice prematurely, we make the conversation about us, our knowledge, or our capacity to rescue and cure, while inadvertently diminishing the patient’s sense of autonomy.
Napolian famously said, “If I had enough ribbon, I could conquer the world”. And by that he meant, if he could fool his soldiers into thinking that they were great by giving them medals and ribbons, he could manipulate them into doing almost anything he wanted them to do.
But it didn’t work out that way for Napoleon.
And nor will it for you if you want to built trust and facilitate better decision-making.
Put away the ribbons,
Put away the medals of honor and distinction.
Put away your need to be recognized as an expert.
And just listen and learn.
That’s Co-discovery at its very core.
Paul A. Henny, DDS
Thought Experiments LLC, ©2017