Workplace Conflict: 5 Steps Facilitate Difficult Conversations between Dental Professionals

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“I can’t keep it to myself any longer! I have stress ulcers. I am losing sleep! My partner and I are endlessly fighting! Today is the day I’m going to confront her. I can do this. After all, I am right, and she is wrong! I think?”

Sound familiar? Is this internal voice becoming a constant nightmare while you commute to work, lasting all day long and becoming especially vocal as you lay your head down at night? This isn’t cool, folks. Not cool at all. Something needs to give and that “something” just might be a conversation with the source of your troubles.

Below you will read about a five-step plan for difficult conversations. In addition, two examples of possible conflicts within the dental workplace with corresponding conversations will be outlined. I am quite certain that we will all be able to relate to at least one of these or similar situations that have transpired within the dental practice.

This article is the third and last in the Workplace Conflict series, and we will address how to have difficult conversations with those we are in discord with. It won’t be easy. It will probably make your heart pound if you are afraid of conflict, which the vast majority of people are.

However, if you want to start sleeping at night, decreasing your risk of failed relationships outside of work, and making the doctor’s eyes pop out of his head when he takes your blood pressure, you need to address these issues. With practice and guidelines to help you prepare, you will get better over time, and your mind will be more at peace.

The Two-sided View

We are all wired in a particular way and have different conflict styles, which was addressed in the second article of this series. We have now learned that conflict exists in the workplace, that it needs to be considered and often mediated, and that we all have unique modes for handling (or avoiding) these situations. This part of the series will wrap things up and focus primarily on the conversations we can have in order to ensure everyone’s voice is heard and the best possible outcome will emerge.

Hey, are any of you old enough to remember those famous Muppets, Statler and Waldorf? Those two crusty guys that always shouted insults and their opinions of the show from the balcony? They were hilarious, weren’t they? Well, those old guys had a point of view from the balcony. They got to see both sides of the coin in all the situations from their vantage.

We don’t have that two-sided view when we are in conflict with someone, but we can certainly try to angle ourselves a little differently so we can see the other person’s side a little more, can we not? Would this help us to solve at least some of our work conflicts before they get out of hand?

My goal is to invite everyone to view each side of the coin from a different perspective. Try to be open-minded. You have absolutely nothing to lose and much to gain.

The five steps in this plan for difficult conversations are:

Step One: Prepare by walking through three possible conversations.

  1. The “What Happened” conversation
  • Where does the story come from? (Information, past experiences, rules?)
  • What impact has the situation had on you?
  • What might their intentions have been?
  • What have you each contributed to the problem?
  1. The “Feelings” conversation
  • Understanding the emotions you experience.
  • What is your emotional footprint?
  1. The “Identity” conversation
  • What does the situation mean to me?
  • What’s at stake for you?
  • What do I need to accept to be better grounded? (Was I wrong?)

Step Two: Check your purposes and decide whether the issue is worth raising.

Purpose

  • What am I hoping to accomplish with the conversation?
  • Have the stance to support learning, sharing, and solving the issue.

Decision

  • Is this the best way to address the issue?
  • If you do not have this conversation, what else can be done to let it go?

Step Three: Start from the third story! What does this mean exactly?

  • Describing the problem as the difference between your stories.
  • Include both viewpoints.
  • Share your purposes.
  • Invite the other person to be a partner in sorting out the situation (Remember that the last article discussed how collaboration is fundamentally the best conflict mode if it can be used.)

Step Four: Explore their story and yours.

  • Listen to understand their perspective on what happened.
  • Ask questions along the way.
  • Shift from blaming and accusations to perceptions, contributions, and feelings.

Step Five: Problem-solving.

  • Create options that meet the needs, concerns, and interests of both parties.
  • Discuss how to keep communication open from this point forward.

OK, there’s the basic five-step plan that we can now put into action, using the following scenarios that we may come across at the dental office.

Scenario A

Melissa is a senior hygienist who always drops her dirty tray of instruments in the sterilization area for the dental assistants to process. The other hygienists contribute to sterilizing their own instruments as well as the dentist’s when they can, and they often fall behind due to the lack of help from Melissa. Tracey is one of the hygienists who has decided to speak to Melissa on behalf of the others and needs some direction.

Using the five-step plan for difficult conversations, let’s walk through how it could be best handled. Melissa and Tracey have a discussion with the end goal being that everyone contributes equally to sterilization.

Step One: Walking through three possible conversations.

What happened:

Melissa is not contributing to sterilization, upsetting the rest of the team.

Feelings:

Tracey is speaking on behalf of the other hygienists about how they all feel frustrated that they sterilize and Melissa does not.

Identity:

Tracey feels she is right to approach this topic with Melissa and has the support of the other hygienists, as they have agreed together that this should be discussed.

Step Two: Check your purposes and decide whether the issue is worth raising.

Purpose

  • Tracey is hoping to convince Melissa to start contributing to sterilization.

Decision

  • Tracey and the other hygienists agreed that this is the best way to approach the situation rather than go to management. Hopefully, Melissa will be receptive, and Tracey is usually the calmer, more diplomatic one who is highly respected by the others.
  • If this conversation does not take place, the frustration will continue to mount, and the situation may escalate unnecessarily.

Step Three: Let’s assume Melissa has agreed to have a conversation with Tracey, and they sit down for a cup of coffee together at lunch.

Start from the third story.

  • Melissa believes the senior hygienist earns the right not to sterilize instruments, and the rest of the team should do it.
  • Tracey has explained that the other hygienists have all agreed that everyone, regardless of rank, should contribute equally to the office’s duties because they are all equal providers.
  • Tracey has asked Melissa to be open-minded about solving this problem together so that everyone can be happy and there will not be a future conflict with the issue. Melissa has agreed to listen to Tracey’s perspective in return for sharing her feelings.

Step Four: Explore their story and yours.

  • Tracey starts the conversation by explaining that, over the last several months, the other hygienists, including herself (this creates a solid stance, so she isn’t pointing fingers), have noticed that Melissa has contributed less and less to the daily office functions.
  • Melissa acknowledges that she has performed less of the “mundane tasks” (as she calls them) because she has been in the office the longest and has “earned her wings” to do so.
  • Now that Tracey understands Melissa’s mindset, she asks Melissa the following questions, and Tracey replies accordingly.
  • Tracey: “OK, I get it now. You know, you’re right. You have definitely been here the longest and deserve recognition for all of your hard work. I can see you don’t like sterilizing. None of us do, but it’s a necessary evil, unfortunately. Wouldn’t you agree?”
  • Melissa: “Oh, totally! I’ve been doing it for years now, though, and I feel it’s time for me to step back and let the others take over. They’ll get their turn one day.”
  • Tracey: We all feel the same way, Melissa. We all would like to step back and have less on our plate. However, we all have the same job here, regardless of how long we have been here. Would you agree that it probably isn’t fair for the other hygienists to now have more to do since you’ve decided to do less, however? That this isn’t the way to handle you slowing down, rather you feel you deserve it or not?”
  • Melissa: “Well, when you put it that way, I suppose you’re right. It’s not fair for others to have to pick up the slack.”

Step Five: Problem Solving

You can see how this discussion, which fortunately has gone smoother than it potentially could have, will end in some form of a collaborative solution? Let’s see how the rest of the conversation could optimally go.

  • Tracey: “I’m so happy to hear you say that. The other hygienists will feel relieved, and the tension that has been forming will start to dissipate if you could start contributing equally again.”
  • Melissa: “Well, I must admit, I am getting worn out. This job is trying on this ol’ gal! (They both laugh a little.) You know, maybe I should talk to the office manager about reducing my hours instead since I am getting a little burnt out. This way, I’m more devoted to doing my share and not creating hostility unintentionally with the other hygienists.”
  • Tracey: “Wow, that would be a great thing for you to do! You deserve a break. You’ve earned it after all these years. The rest of the team will really appreciate your efforts, and I will talk to them to make sure they all know what your intentions truly were.”
  • Melissa: “Thank you so much, Tracey. Now let’s get back to work, shall we?”
  • Tracey: “Right on! Oh, and by the way, Melissa?”
  • Melissa: “Yes?”
  • Tracey: “From now on, feel free to take me aside anytime you’re feeling extra tired or need a break, and I’ll help accommodate you in any way I can, OK?”
  • Melissa: “Aww, you’re the best.”
  • Tracey: “Thanks!”

See how the five steps work? Yes, this was a conversation that worked itself out beautifully, and that doesn’t always happen. What I think we can all agree to is that, by using this method, the chances of a positive outcome are much higher than if we use a more competitive one or, often worse, an avoidance style.

OK, let’s move on to another scenario, so we can get a clearer picture of the five steps in action.

Scenario B

Janice often changes the schedule when no one is looking and moves patients from her column into Amy’s column and vice versa. They both work on commission, so Amy is losing production as a result. Amy’s conflict mode is “accommodating,” and she just wants to make everyone happy.

Amy’s husband, though, is getting quite annoyed with the smaller paychecks, however, and has repeatedly asked his wife to address the situation before he requests that she find another job. Amy likes her job and does not want to look for another. Amy has agreed to approach Janice to keep her promise to her husband but feels very intimidated and doesn’t want to stir the pot. Let’s help Amy by using the five-step approach, shall we?

Step One: Walking through three possible conversations.

  1. What Happened
  • Janice has been exchanging patients on the schedule from her column to Amy’s and vice versa.
  • Janice’s production has increased, seemingly her goal.
  • Amy’s production has decreased, not necessarily Janice’s goal.
  • Amy has not attempted to stop Janice from doing so, so Janice may not see this as a problem.
  1. Feelings
  • Amy feels controlled by the situation, both at work and now at home.
  • Janice has not initiated a conversation about it prior to now.
  1. Identity
  • Amy’s husband is now getting upset because this is directly affecting the family income.
  • Amy will have to seek other employment if this situation isn’t amended, and she does not want to leave her present job as she enjoys it.
  • Amy needs to accept shared responsibility since she did nothing to stop the situation nor speak her opinion prior to now.
  • Janice may be unaware there is a problem.

Step Two: Check your purposes and decide whether the issue is worth raising.

Purpose

  • Amy knows this conversation needs to happen but has been avoiding it. She will be open-minded to Janice’s responses and do her best to reach a decision together and not just cave in like she always does, all while attempting to preserve harmony.

Decision

  • Amy has decided that she will approach Janice at the end of the workday and ask her to chat about their schedules the following morning together if Janice would mind coming in 15 minutes early to do so.
  • If Janice does not agree to do so, mediation will need to be sought. (For the sake of this discussion, however, we will assume Janice agrees to meet early the next morning.)

Step Three: It is the next morning, 15 minutes early as agreed upon.

Start from the third story.

  • Amy has stated to Janice that she has noticed a difference in the schedule lately between both of their columns, and it seems as though Janice is getting the lion’s share of the most productive patient load.
  • Janice (who has a “competing” conflict style) has retorted by saying that she is better at harder cases and with periodontal management, so she has taken it upon herself to switch some patients around for the betterment of the patients.
  • Amy, who is working very hard at not being so accommodating, knows that this is not true and that the real reason for switching patients is due to production numbers.
  • Amy verbalizes to Janice that she has noticed a significant decline in her paycheck as a result of Janice taking it upon herself to switch the columns around and that this isn’t a good situation for her to be in.
  • Janice starts fidgeting a little, acting slightly remorseful but still not backing down.
  • Amy takes the opportunity to ask Janice if she thinks it is possible to solve this issue together rather than go to management.
  • At that point, Janice realizes that she cannot take advantage of the situation or Amy any longer and that they need to settle this now.

Step Four: Explore their story.

  • Amy is feeling slightly empowered by her new stance and not averting the issue in order to be her usual accommodating self. She does not want to take advantage of the situation too much, but she also wants to settle this now while Janice has agreed to listen.
  • Amy starts off by saying, “Janice, thank you so much for listening to my concern. You see, my paychecks have really been suffering, and I have tried to just go along with it, hoping this situation would change. My husband, however, does the budgeting and has pretty much given me the ultimatum of correcting this issue or finding another job. I do not wish to leave this practice as I love it and my patients dearly.”
  • Janice starts to tear up, something Amy is not used to seeing from her usual tough exterior. Quickly composing herself, Janice says to Amy, “You are right, that isn’t fair. Honestly, I didn’t want to say anything, but I need to explain why I did what I did. It’s only honorable to do so. A few months ago, my husband and I separated, and I am now alone with my three kids. I am stressed financially, physically exhausted, and I have been on a mission to make as much money as possible so I can provide for them and prove to myself that I can do this on my own. I am a fighter, and I was looking out for my kids and didn’t even think about the impact it would have on you. I am so sorry!”
  • Amy, dumbstruck by Janice’s admission and her sudden burst of emotion, feels empathy for Janice. Normally, this would be the point where Amy would submit and forget about her own problems in order to accommodate another. This wouldn’t be a good time to do so, though, as this directly impacts her as well.

Step Five: Problem Solving.

  • Amy takes a deep breath and looks Janice in her watery eyes with compassion, and says, “Janice, thank you so much for sharing that with me. I had no idea! You are a very strong woman, and I admire you deeply. Having said that, however, we need to keep the schedule fair to both of us. Wouldn’t you agree?”
  • With humble eyes, Janice apologizes again. “Yes, I am so sorry. You are right. My life should not impact yours, and you have just as much experience as I do with periodontal patients. We should work together from this point forward and not against each other.”
  • Relieved, Amy says, “Great idea! Thank you for this. How about we do not ever touch the other person’s schedule unless we directly ask the other if a switch is warranted? This would be the most respectful method so that we both get a decent paycheck in the end?”
  • “Yes, definitely, you are right. Thank you for understanding and not going to management about this. You are a top-shelf gal, Amy!”
  • “Aww, thanks, Janice. Hey! Maybe our kids can have a playdate sometime at my place, and we can chat about things other than work. Would you like that?”
  • “Indeed, I would! I don’t really have a lot of friends, and I sure could use one right about now. Especially one as sweet as you and with kids the same age as mine to play with.”

The rest of the day was much better, and Amy’s paycheck improved in the end. Janice also approached her manager and asked for some additional hours in order to help with her increasing financial responsibility at home. This is not a typical scenario, but a doable one, using this approach.

These are just two of many examples I am quite certain we have come across at one point or another. We will now end this series about Conflict in the Workplace and switch gears a little in the next series, directed more at a leadership and practice management type of theme, which I hope you will all enjoy.

Abraham Lincoln once said, “To ease another’s heartache is to forget one’s own.”

Thank you for staying tuned in and reading through this series with open minds and hearts. After all, we are in this together and need to lift each other up as much as we can. Until the next series, my colleagues and friends, hugs!

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Corina Hartley, RDH, is a Canadian, Registered Dental Hygienist who lives in Edmonton, Alberta, which lies beside the North Saskatchewan River, the longest stretch of connected urban parkland in North America. She is supported and loved by her husband, four children, three grandchildren, and two fur babies. Graduating from Durham College in Oshawa, Ontario, in 2006, she has experienced the challenges of commuting to big cities, working in more remote areas, and also temping at various offices with differing ethnic backgrounds. While her family will always be her first love, the dental world is certainly the field she is passionate about, and writing about it brings her immense joy. Corina has a unique ability to relax the most phobic patient and calm an irate one with a smile, understanding attitude, and a special sense of humour. She enjoys really getting to the heart of the matter with everything she does in life, and this is demonstrated with her witty writing abilities as well. Corina’s biggest desire is to share life with as many people as possible through close-up experiences, story-telling, and simply just being present.