Mary Osborne, RDH, gives tips on how to connect with patients by spending a little time to find common ground.

Connect with patientsby Mary Osborne, RDH

How would your practice be different if you took just a few minutes after you see a new patient, or an existing patient, to reflect on the values they expressed? To ask yourself what you learned about what is important to that person. What they care about. Is family important? Faith? Quiet time? Nature? Friends? Learning? Adventure? What did you hear? What if you made a note or two in their record?

The next time you see that patient, instead of talking about the weather, look for an opportunity to mention what you heard: “I’ve been thinking about our conversation the last time you were here, Mrs. White, I got the sense that _______ is important to you.” Allow her to respond. Notice her facial expression, her tone of voice. Ask yourself if you sense a different connection with that patient, perhaps a deeper level of trust. Is there more you would like to learn?

Patients are often faced with making difficult decisions in a dental office. People are better able to make difficult decisions when they feel safe, and they feel safe to the degree to which they feel connected to you. There are a variety of ways we can and do connect with our patients.


The traditional way of connecting with patients has been through authority. It involves telling people what they need to do and expecting that they will do it because you have stature or information they do not have. This is a valid connection and works well with people who are unable or unwilling to make decisions for themselves. It is not unusual for elderly people who were raised at a time when a doctor’s authority was unquestioned to feel comfortable with this connection. It is also sometimes the way we must connect with children. It is not the most effective way to connect with most adults.


It is also possible to connect with patients through information. There is a lot they do not understand about dentistry and dental health, and they depend on us to inform them. We have a wealth of information we can share, and this tends to be a comfortable way for dental professionals to connect. We tend to feel safe in our knowledge; we may enjoy the sense of control it offers. It is also the way most patients are accustomed to relating with their dentist, so it may be comfortable for them as well. They may be grateful for the information and impressed with our knowledge.


Another way to connect with patients is in terms of commonalities. This is the way most people initially connect in social situations. It comes from a belief that people enjoy people who are like them, so we look for things we have in common with others. We try to find interests, experiences, and likes and dislikes that we share. This connection goes beyond authority and information which keep the focus on dentistry; it is more of a personal connection. When we establish things we have in common, we move out of the strictly professional relationship and demonstrate that we care about the person on more than one level.

When we find things we have in common with someone else it tends to put both of us more at ease. We have something we both enjoy talking about that doesn’t involve dentistry. More importantly, there is a perception that if we have similar experiences, on some level we know each other better. We tend to believe that we understand each other better, which contributes to a sense of safety. This connection is very important to people who value relationships. It is also more important in certain communities and cultures than in others. People who do not place a high value on relationship, however, may be skeptical of an attempt to connect on this level.

One connection is stronger than any of the others.


You can connect with your patients on the level of compassion. This level of care involves an emotional connection. We understand our patients’ lives are sometimes complex and difficult. When someone is in pain or fearful, we can identify with his experience and treat him gently, both physically and emotionally. When we have genuine compassion for people in a dental office, we understand that information alone will not allay their fears. We are acutely aware that pain is a matter of perspective, and only the person experiencing it can determine how much is too much. We understand that shame is emotionally painful and do everything we can to make sure our patients feel accepted as they are.

Compassion is easier with some people than with others. Patients who complain a lot can lose our compassion. A new patient in obvious pain usually wins our compassion. But sometimes it is harder to bring that compassion to the relationship when the person has been a part of the practice for a while. It’s not that we don’t care; we can just lose our awareness. Dentistry can become somewhat routine for us, and we can forget that for some people, it will never be routine. The more we keep our attention on the patient, the more likely we will pick up subtle signals that tell us how to care for him or her. And it is a powerful connection to have in a dental office with every patient, every day.


All of the connections we have talked about are appropriate in a dental office at various times with different individuals. Combining several of them enhances the bond we are creating. For example, when information is appropriate, it will be a stronger connection if you bring your compassion.

But one connection is stronger than any of the others. That is a connection on the level of values. Understanding what is important to someone else can be a powerful link that goes beyond “hot buttons.” You may hear some values that directly apply to dentistry and that is helpful. But when people feel really understood on the level of their values, the relationship changes. The connection goes right to the core of who they are. When we reflect back values we are hearing we enable patients to access those values and apply them to choices they make about their health.

Connections are easier for some of us than they are for others. They are more important to some than to others. But keep in mind that connections are a two-way street. As you focus on connecting with others, you will have the opportunity to experience a different connection from them. In our busy world of dentistry it is easy to lose sight of the impact we have on the lives of those we serve.

If you are open to it, you can find new meaning in your work by allowing in the difference you make in people’s lives. Connect with people on the level of values, and give yourself permission to fully experience the appreciation your patients feel for the impact of your care on their lives.

Listening is another way to connect with patients. Read another article by Mary Osborne, “An Invitation to Influence,” at

Connect with patientsMary Osborne, RDH, has worked in dentistry for over 50 years as a hygienist, patient facilitator, and teacher. Her writing is published in national magazines, and she has spoken extensively to state, national, and international organizations. Her programs are designed to challenge your thinking, and provide real world, practical ideas to enhance your communication in both your personal and professional life.


For more information and a deeper understanding of how you can have a greater impact on those you serve, please visit

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