“Be the Sponge and Not the Brick” – Cultivating Respect and Effective Communication in Your Dental Practice

Kelley Perry, FAADOM, with Real-World Insights.


The difference between active and passive listening is how we can talk to others respectfully.

One morning, I walked into a new medical practice for an appointment, and the first thing that I saw was a sign that read:

“Please treat our staff with respect; they’re here to help you. Aggressive, offensive, or intimidating behavior will not be tolerated.”

This simple sign raised questions like:

  • What was this sign here to tell me?
  • Was this sign setting the tone of my appointment and overall experience?
  • Will this one sign make new patients like me wonder if others get upset often in this office?
  • Or did it make it seem like the staff couldn’t communicate adequately or see from the patient’s point of view?”

A straightforward sign about respect and communication raised many questions and made uneasiness settle before I spoke to a single staff member.

Know Your Strengths and Weaknesses

Only some patients or guardians will be pleased with their experience or react to the staff as we think they should. On the other hand, only some team members are equipped to handle upset patients or guardians.

How you respond to a patient and guardian of a patient when they are upset will set the tone for the entire appointment. How we react when faced with being talked to in an unprofessional manner or feeling like we are being personally attacked is the key to setting the pace for a resolution that will make everyone feel cared for.

As a leader, I am often considered the voice of reason. However, I know there are better people to handle an upset party than me. This is where getting to know the strengths and weaknesses of your team members is essential so you can identify the best person on staff who can handle controversy.

Everyone wants to be respected, and we must give the upset party that respect. We hope to bring the tone to a level where constructive communication can begin.

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Validate and Listen

How do we begin to communicate with one another respectfully?

First, we must take a deep breath and let the upset party know that you hear them and that your goal is to reconcile their needs. We do this by initiating communication to listen.

However, there are different types of listening: listening to respond and listening to understand, known as passive and active listening.

Think of passive and active listening as soaking up water with a brick or a sponge. When you pour water onto the brick, the water hits the brick, but the water splashes through the brick and onto the ground. When you pour the water onto the sponge, the sponge will soak up the water until the sponge is rung out.

When we listen to understand, we become the sponge—soaking in all the information and disgruntled words from the upset party as we wait to be rung out. After listening to their concerns or grumblings, we must address them with respect and dignity.

Remain Neutral to Your View

Communication and respect are a two-way street. Therefore, we must be able to address all concerns one may have with a simple office policy that we are always willing to discuss any issues they have respectfully with the promise that the staff is there to do the absolute best for the patient, both with their care and experience.

More often than not, all parties involved are on the same page, wanting what is best for the patient, but our differing points of view on resolving the problem cause miscommunication.

This interaction does not determine who a person is or what they are going through. We see a tiny snippet of a person’s life, and we are not there to judge them on their reasons for being upset.

We are there to listen to their concerns and validate their feelings. If we take a moment to calm down and not mindlessly react to their anger or raised voices, then we may be able to diffuse the situation and come to a reasonable resolution.

Everyone has the same goal: excellent patient care. That starts with precise communication from when the patient checks in for their appointment until they check out.

Take the time to “absorb” their questions and concerns and react less quickly to their tone. We can all work together to ensure they are comfortable with their course of treatment and ultimately give them a more pleasant experience.


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About the Author

Profile of Kelley Perry, RDH, FAADOMKelley Perry, RDH, FAADOM

Kelley has been in dentistry for 35 years. She started her career as a Dental Assistant before earning her Dental Hygiene license in 1993.

Kelley transitioned out of the clinical staff 11 years ago to become the Office Manager for a pediatric dental office in Gadsden, Alabama.

Kelley was inducted into the AADOM Fellowship program in 2022 and aspires to receive her Mastership during the AADOM 2024 Conference in Las Vegas, Nevada.


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