Emotional Intelligence in the Dental Workplace Part Three: Building EQ

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Taliah the sheep bleated, “Baa! Baa!” She was frightened, cold, and alone. Separated from her herd when she fell behind to graze, she was startled when she looked up. Attempting to catch up, she tripped on the rough terrain and landed on her back, now cast and unable to manage on her own. The weight of her wool, coupled with her short legs and her fast-beating heart, rendered her immobile.

She needed help quickly because she recalled her master talking about this type of situation before with one of her siblings. She will only have about 24 hours in this position, or she could die! Her tummy gasses could build up so much. Oh, my! “Baa! Baa!” Help me!

Have any fellow dental hygienists heard a similar story of a cast sheep? It’s a great reminder to help others when they are down (cast) and unable to help themselves. We’ve all been like Taliah at some point in our lives, wouldn’t you agree? We’ve also witnessed a friend, co-worker in the dental workplace, or maybe a stranger who needed help. How did you handle each situation?

Telltale Signs of Emotions

While the story about Taliah may seem unrelated to emotional intelligence at first glance, I hope you’ll see that building emotional intelligence (EQ) can contribute significantly to helping others. How? EQ building can help with patient care, develop effective communication with co-workers, or collaborate with integrated health professionals.

In part two of the EQ series, we learned about perceiving, using, understanding, and managing emotions. Perceiving emotions through facial expressions can be tricky, though, as more than one emotion can be displayed at a time. For instance, someone might smile, but their eyes can simultaneously look sad. Learning the telltale signs of these emotions is a great way to build our EQ so that we can help others.

The seven emotions and their telltale signs are as follows:


  • Eyebrows are drawn upwards in the middle and curve down toward the end
  • Slight vertical furrow between the eyes, called Darwin’s “grief” muscle
  • Corners of mouth point downward


  • Lips pressed together hard, and upper lip almost disappears
  • Eyes may widen across upper eyelids while lower lids are contracted
  • The inner corners of the eyebrows pull downward
  • Often, a furrowed brow will form


  • Eyebrows may appear horizontal with wrinkles across the forehead
  • The upper eyelid may lift high to show more whites of the eyes
  • Corners of the mouth may pull lips horizontally


  • Rising of cheeks
  • Eyes show “smile lines” as muscles around them tighten
  • An authentic smile called the Duchenne smile is named after French neurologist Guillaume Duchenne
  • Note that a phony or forced smile is missing characteristic smile lines


  • Raised upper eyelids
  • White of the eye exposed
  • Mouth or jaw may open also


  • Rolling eyes
  • The left corner of the lip is often pulled out asymmetrically, creating a dimple


  • Nose wrinkling
  • Looks like the person smelled something bad

What do these emotions tell us, and how can they help us build our EQ?

Emotional expressions don’t tell us the cause that prompts the response. However, if we consider the situation in which the emotion was expressed, we can choose to understand the person who is feeling it. We can begin to understand it, thereby aiding towards a healthier outcome.

Understanding What Emotions Mean

Here are those same seven emotions and what they commonly mean. An example of how this may arise in the dental workplace is also given so that we can relate better to each.

Use this learned information to contribute to your assessment of the situation and build EQ. Keep in mind that we may not always know why the emotion was displayed, though explanations are provided here for context.

Sadness: Lost something of value.

Example: You just learned that a beloved, long-term patient passed away. With eyebrows furrowed and mouth pointed slightly downward, a usually “chipper” dental assistant now looks glum and glossy-eyed. She served the patient for many years and had grown rather fond of the patient. She is showing signs of sadness.

Anger: The way is blocked. Get out of my way.

Example: Yet again, it seems as though the office manager has changed your co-worker’s schedule even though she promised to let her start 30 minutes later to accommodate for daycare, and now she is being chastised for being late. No wonder your co-hygienist slammed a door and is now forcefully tying up her shoes and talking under her breath with her lips pressed together and the inner corners of her eyebrows pulled downward. She is displaying her anger not too subtly!

Fear: Possible threat. Be prepared.

Example: With a wrinkled forehead and whites of eyes bigger than Frosty the Snowman’s torso, a fellow dental hygienist is quivering and sweating, checking her watch constantly. You discovered later that she was asked to see the manager at the end of the workday for a “discussion.” She is beyond anxious and fearful of possible dismissal.

Happiness: Gained something of value. The way is safe.

Example: Beaming and grinning from ear to ear, the dental receptionist greets every patient with smiles all day. She is celebrating her wedding anniversary that evening and can’t wait to go to her favorite restaurant with her spouse.

Surprise: Something unexpected happened. (This can be a good or bad experience.)

Example: Did you ever get a paycheck just a little (or a lot!) bigger than anticipated? Finding out a production bonus or simply a little “extra” for being a valued employee is wonderful and should be cherished. I’m willing to bet your jaw dropped to the floor in Wile E. Coyote fashion out of complete and utter surprise!

Contempt: Not worthy of care. Hardening of feelings.

Example: The hygienist of 30 years is no longer talking to the dentist with the same consideration and respect that she used to, and she rolls her eyes at him behind his back. It turns out that she has decided she is tired of always asking for a well-deserved raise for loyalty to the office and dedication to the profession while he keeps hiring new hygienists and offers them higher compensation than she presently makes.

Disgust: Rules are violated.

Example: The office manager has taken it upon herself to cross-train the dental receptionist, who is her niece, to perform sterilization duties when the back gets busy even though she does not have the necessary infection control training to provide this training. The dental receptionist often skips the necessary sterilization steps and breaks proper infection control protocol. The office manager disregards stated concerns about the need for proper infection control and continues to allow the receptionist to perform sterilization duties.

Every time the lead dental assistant walks into the sterilization area and sees instruments not sterilized properly and cross-contamination of the clean versus dirty sides of the room, she makes a big show of wrinkling her nose high in the air, so everyone knows she is feeling disgusted by the lack of following proper infection control protocols.

EQ Goals for Dental Hygienists

The big question now is how dental hygienists can improve their EQ in their dental workplaces.

There are five ways to implement EQ:

  1. Understand your emotions and ask yourself questions

By identifying your emotions as they arise, you will become more aware of how you feel in certain situations. By tracking any negative emotions, you will recognize areas of weakness and make positive steps toward change. Positive change can begin by asking yourself these questions:

  • What emotions do I currently have about my workplace? My team members?
  • How do these emotions affect the people I work with? My patients?
  • Am I letting any negative emotions affect the way I work? The way I interact with my team members or patients?
  • Is my performance positively or negatively affected by my emotions?
  1. Listen actively

Actively listening helps prevent misunderstandings and shows respect to your team members, boss, and patients.

  • Pay attention to nonverbal cues (facial expressions from above)
  • Wait for your turn to speak
  • Do not interrupt
  1. Stay calm

Conflict management is discussed in another series of articles. If interested, start reading the first article here.

  • Respond, do not react
  • Avoid an emotional outburst by taking a breath and waiting a moment to gain composure and think of a resolution
  1. Constructive criticism

Being open to constructive criticism is a critical component towards growth as a person and developing EQ, though it can be difficult to master by some.

  • Ask trusted others for unbiased, second opinions
  • Learn to accept hard truths about yourself without getting defensive or offended
  1. Shampoo, rinse, repeat

You can do it! Don’t become deflated when you mess up because, inevitably, you will. You are human, after all, so dust yourself off. Shake it off and try again with an open mind and good intentions.

  • Rise back up even when you misstep.

My grandmother used to always say, “Well, dear, I try to always live by the Golden Rule.” I didn’t get that when I was young, but I sure do now. Basically, do unto others as you’d have them done unto you. In other words, treat others how you would like to be treated. Our EQ can rise and help others by practicing this one rule alone.

In Closing

So, fellow dental hygienists, may I suggest we help each other up when we see another flailing around on the ground like a cast sheep, weighted down from too much wool? When another team member or patient is grazing on their knees because their feet are too sore to stand, can we help them up? Can we learn to recognize and eventually manage emotions in a contributory way, so we might all benefit?

Dale Carnegie, the author of How to Win Friends and Influence People, said, “When dealing with people, remember you are not dealing with creatures of logic, but with creatures of emotion.”

I challenge every one of you to increase your emotional intelligence, to be an attribute to your dental workplace, but mostly to be a good human. Until next time, my friends and colleagues.

To read part one of the EQ series, click here. To read part two, click here.

Before you leave, check out the Today’s RDH self-study CE courses. All courses are peer-reviewed and non-sponsored to focus solely on pure education. Click here now.

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