Dental hygienists know there’s more than asking how often a patient is brushing or cleaning interdentally a day. Our goal is to make dental patients feel comfortable, safe, and at ease. In order to gain this level of trust with patients, the direction of the conversation may mean asking about their personal lives or remembering how six months ago they were planning a trip to Hawaii for a family vacation.
What if I asserted that this is still possible for dental hygienists who are introverts?
You may ask, “What is an introvert exactly?” Or, you may think that an introvert automatically means “antisocial” or unable to interact with people. If this were the case, then introverts wouldn’t make good hygienists, right? As a self-proclaimed introvert, this is very far from the truth! In fact, due to an introvert’s ability to listen carefully and observe, we are often very attentive to patients and can hone in on their needs that they may not always verbalize.
By definition, an introvert is someone who is energized by spending time alone or with a smaller group of close friends. We often thrive in making deeper connections rather than peripheral conversations. This does not mean that an introvert doesn’t have the ability to socialize or are languorous beings. It simply means that an introvert has to exert more energy and effort when engaging with others. After constant social interaction, the introvert needs time alone to recharge.
Dental Hygienists’ Engagement
So how does this relate to dental hygiene? Hygienists have to engage with different people (both patients and office staff) at every appointment throughout the day.
Due to the brevity of the appointment, much of the conversation is small talk. Initiating small talk with various patients can become overwhelming for an introvert, and I experience this quite often. This could lead to uncertainty on how to engage with your patients. Luckily for us, this doesn’t have to be the case.
For an extrovert, these ideas may seem obvious and simple. However, for an introvert who might be grasping at straws for how to start a conversation comfortably, I hope these help. Below are seven simple ways to start a conversation with your patients, help build that rapport, and ditch the awkwardness.
1) Compliment the patient on something.
This could be the cute shoes they have on, the shirt they’re wearing, or a new hairstyle. It can be literally anything (that’s appropriate, of course).
Who doesn’t like to hear a compliment? When bringing a patient back from the waiting room, I introduce myself and instantly find something to compliment the patient on. Not only does this break the ice, but it also shows the patient that they are in a safe space ‒ a space that exhibits kindness. An anxious patient starts to feel at ease, and a more difficult patient starts to soften up.
2) Ask how the weekend was or about upcoming weekend plans.
This is the perfect way to start a conversation with a patient on a Monday or at the end of the week. Not only does this show interest in their well-being, but you may also learn about new places to check out or things to do during your own free time.
For example, I’ve lived in my current city for a little over 18 months. Asking locals about weekend plans often gives me ideas on how to learn more about the city ‒ what new restaurants to try, what parks and trails are nice to check out, or what festivals may be going on. Keep in mind that dental offices often have different office hours, so be sure to tailor these questions around what makes sense for you. If your office is closed on Fridays, save this question for your Thursday patients.
3) Ask how their day is going so far.
Patients often use lunch breaks or breaks from work to make it to their dental appointment. The hour away from work gives them a chance to take a moment away from the stress of work or home life, which they may communicate to you.
You may think, “What do I do or say once a patient’s stress is conveyed to me?” Make sure that your patient is comfortable as possible. Do they need a blanket or pillow? Could you get them a drink of water? Would they like to listen to music (if your office offers this)?
Be sure to check throughout the appointment to make sure that they are OK. Make sure that they know that the designated hour or so is about them and their comfort. They may also share details about their day. The appointment often feels like downtime to do nothing for at least an hour before getting back to their busy or demanding day.
You may also get the very popular response, “I was doing OK until I got here!” And that’s OK too. This response normally comes from a place of anxiety and fear, so be sure not to take it personally. With patience, kindness, gentleness, and attentiveness, you’re likely to change the patient’s perspective of dental visits over time. You may eventually have patients request you as their hygienist!
4) For new patients, ask if they are from the area.
If they’re born and raised in the town or city, they may give their perspective on how things have changed over the years. Long-term local patients can also give insights into local histories, such as how their childhood dentist practiced nearby while growing up or how they remember the current office being only a woodland.
If they are a transplant or new to the city, you could learn more about where they’re from and why they decided to relocate. Asking these questions gives patients the opportunity to share more about their background, and this is an excellent way to gain an understanding of your patient.
In order to keep the conversation flowing, you could ask more general questions about their lives. Ask if they are married and if they have kids (including fur babies!). Patients normally light up when talking about their kids and significant others and will often ask you the same question.
Many of my patients know that I am engaged to be married. At dental visits, they always ask how the wedding planning is going and will usually share their own experiences and tips for wedding planning (which I very much appreciate).
I also have a picture of my Yorkie, Nugget, as a monitor screensaver in the operatory, and the patients love it. They will often comment on how cute he is before I’m able to say anything. Knowing more about their hygienist makes them feel like they know a little more about you and may help them feel at ease.
5) Ask what they do for work.
This one is normally for new patients or your first time seeing that patient. If you’re new to the area or office, this could help you make new connections and able to network within the community. They could also make awesome referral sources for you.
Once patients start to share details about their jobs and careers, they’ll likely ask you how long you’ve been doing dental hygiene and what made you choose dentistry. This is your chance to talk about how passionate you are about patients and preventive oral health care. You’re also likely to get complimented on how well of a job you did after the appointment! (Kudo points if they give you the compliment in front of the doctor!)
6) Ask about hobbies and what they do for fun.
Number 5 brings me to number six. Many patients choose not to elaborate on what they do for a living for a number of reasons. Maybe the job is stressful, or they just wish to keep details to themselves for privacy reasons. Maybe you already know what they do for a living if you’ve seen them a few times before.
So, ask them what they enjoy doing for fun. Who doesn’t enjoy talking about their passion and the ways they like to spend their off time? Once patients start sharing their hobbies, you will be surprised about the things you may have in common. This is especially true for introverted patients! Sharing how you’re looking forward to a quiet weekend, reading a good book, or lunch with a close friend could very well resonate with a more reserved patient. Introverts unite!
This helps build rapport with your patient, and you have things to share with each other at each appointment: What books you’ve read, what music you’ve listened to or created, or what new recipes you’ve tried. Once again, sharing things about yourself, without going overboard and making the appointment more about you than them, helps a patient to feel more comfortable with you. As an introvert, this may seem outlandish or unfamiliar; I, too, feel this way at times! But in doing so, you may also feel closer to the patient in return and feel more confident with having conversations.
7) Vacations, holidays, and traditions.
Last but not least, we have the very last conversation starter as an introverted hygienist. This is a fun one! If it’s around spring break or summer months, ask if they have any vacations planned. If it’s around the holidays, ask if they have any special plans or traditions. How fun is it to learn about new places to visit or hear that your patients will be off visiting family for the holidays? You may even get some holiday cookies in return!
You can be a great hygienist as an introvert, and it is possible to have great conversations with patients as an introverted hygienist. Remember to be yourself, have fun, and let the conversation flow. You will be surprised by what you’re capable of while still being true to yourself. You may just become a chatty patty with the right patient. Just don’t get behind on your schedule!
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