What my job as an RA taught me about communication

Dentistry is a teamwork-driven field: we must learn to collaborate productively despite differences in our working styles. After all, the relationships between dentists, patients and employees are all important. Being in a profession where you work closely with people can be rewarding, but also challenging. Learning how to work with all types of people can prevent conflict, reduce stress and help your team achieve a common goal. So where do we start building these skills long before we put on those white coats and see patients of our own?

As a predental student, I currently work part-time as an undergraduate Resident Assistant for the Palo Verde West dorms at Arizona State University. This job has exposed me to students from all walks of life. I believe that the first step in understanding a person is to learn their story. It’s easy to assume that we’re all enrolled in college to simply earn a degree. However, as I made the time to get to know each person on my floor, I quickly found that everyone had a unique drive that influenced his or her daily decisions. For example, one of my students was diagnosed with social anxiety and therefore rarely attended class. She struggled to communicate with other students and often excluded herself from social activities. However, after learning this, I strove to communicate with her more by inviting her to coffee each week. I saw her slowly became more talkative with each cup and, after a month, she had become the social butterfly of the floor. Hearing her story not only helped us bond, but also taught me how I could better serve her as a Resident Assistant. Before I had realized it, we were already working together towards a common goal: creating a comfortable, shared space that she could come home to regardless of her individual reservations.

I think this skill will serve me well in dentistry. As we work to understand our patient’s stories in the context of their care, it’s important to remember that creating an effective dental home is a collaboration. You’re on the same team, working towards that common goal.

In my position as a Resident Assistant, training has taught me to adapt quickly to urgent situations. Safety is a priority for the students in our residential communities and it is my job to ensure students are comfortable in their home. Each student is different, and no amount of training can prepare even the most seasoned Resident Assistant for some events that may occur. As issues arise, problem-solving is often necessary to calm the individuals involved. For example, one of my residents was struggling in his classes and was considering dropping out of school. Initially, I attempted to start a conversation about his academic experience, but he shut down. So, I decided to find out what his story was. I spoke with him about life at home and discovered a history of financial troubles. This allowed me to utilize my training to direct him to the right resources and the student eventually obtained a scholarship to help him pay for his education, allowing him to stay in school. Knowing an individual’s story and being able to adapt one’s training to apply it to the situation at hand is an important skill for both Resident Assistants and dentists.

When working on a single tooth, conditions can change in an instant due to unforeseen circumstances. Training and adaptability can help the patient’s condition and develop the credibility of the dentist. You will never see the same mouth twice and each mouth has a different story to tell, so we must be ready to adapt to caring for a diverse pool of patients.

Adaptability and communication skills are not innate skills, but they can be learned. More importantly, both are crucial skills to dentistry that take just as much time to master as drilling a tooth. I’m thankful that my experience working as a Resident Assistant has taught me skills that I can take with me as I move forward in my career. Luckily, you can hone these skills too. When in doubt on how to proceed, start by learning someone’s story.

~ Sarah Ellsworth, predental

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About Sarah Ellsworth

Sarah is a sophomore Biomedical Sciences major at Arizona State University. She currently serves as the Social Chair for the ASU Pre-Dental Society and as a Resident Assistant for the Palo Verde West dorm on the Tempe campus. When she isn’t studying, she enjoys preparing a home cooked meal, hitting the hiking trails, and spending time with family and friends.

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