Mentalis. Buccinator. Risorius. As dental students, we are all familiar with speaking—well, at least we’re familiar with what muscles are used in speaking. Dental students rely heavily on interpersonal communication with our faculty, our peers, and our patients. Our goals for patient care often include a change in habit, whether it is flossing more or quitting smoking. Though the bulk of habit formation relies on the patient, a sizable burden rests on how we communicate those goals to the patient. But when it comes to that communication, our approach is sometimes backwards!
Research in communication studies can often seem counterintuitive to what we may think. For instance, most interpersonal communication is surprisingly…non-verbal. We say more with our expressions, gestures, and posture than with actual words. Aside from non-verbal, there are 3 main styles of communication: talking, seeing, and doing. Because triangles are awesome, let’s visualize this as one.
When advising patients, dental students usually spend most of their time talking, with some seeing, followed by very little doing.
Now what exactly does that mean? Let’s say a patient has dry mouth symptoms. We might encourage them to use a product that relieves those symptoms, like Biotène. Most often, we would tell them how the product can help, how to use it, and leave it at that. Our communication only involves talking. But communication studies reveal that people remember and follow through with only 11% of what they hear! So how do we kick-start those meager statistics? By helping patients see and do. In fact, people retain a whopping 83% of what they see and a staggering 90% of what they do. So instead of just talking about the benefits of Biotène, open up the box. Put the bottle in the patient’s hand so they can see it. Let them use the product and go through the motions of swishing and spitting. Simply put: talk less, do more.
The applicability of this method is universal. Yes, it does take a few extra minutes to put floss in a patient’s hands and walk them through the technique. Sure, it takes longer to show a patient different types of smoking cessation aides rather than just talk about them. But if those few extra minutes can result in habit formation, it is well worth the time. So let’s flip that triangle upside down!
But don’t forget about all those facial muscles either. After all, you’ll need that zygomaticus to conclude your communication with a smile.
~Niveditha Rajagopalan, Midwestern University-IL ’16, Speaker of the House