Inside Dental Assisting
Nov/Dec 2011
Volume 7, Issue 6

Guidelines for the Practicing Professional

How to work and communicate effectively with colleagues and patients.

By Carolyn Breen, EdD, CDA, RDA, RDH

Working effectively as part of the dental team requires maintaining high professional standards and conduct, along with showing respect for colleagues and patients. Dental assistants can advance their careers by being self-aware team players, focused on the goals of the entire group, with an understanding of how to develop and apply interpersonal and communication skills. When they function proficiently and appropriately in a variety of situations, including difficult ones—such as change, conflict, and criticism—they improve the workplace experience for themselves, their colleagues, and their patients.

Professionals and Ethics

A profession is generally a line of work that requires specific and intensive academic training and a specialized body of knowledge that is constantly expanded, updated, and documented in the literature. Individuals within the profession often have a commitment to continuing education and lifelong learning to ensure ongoing advancement of the field and enhancement of services provided. Professions may also be self-regulating, and their members often adopt a code of ethics that provides a basis for moral decision-making. While what is considered ethical may vary, regardless of the profession, basic ethical concepts include beneficence (ie, do no harm); autonomy with respect for all viewpoints; and honesty in dealing with others, including identification of potential hazards and benefits of treatment and justice in providing a person with services due.

Ethical standards often include a broad statement of ideals with explicit educational and regulatory guidelines, which govern conduct and serve as a basis for adjudicating grievances. In that health professions are usually guided by ethical principles, patient trust is based on an expectation that the professional’s behavior is governed by group-prescribed norms, ie, that ethical standards are developed and enforced by the profession.

Principles that should guide individual actions and decisions contemplated should be based on self-examination:

  • Is the action/decision legal and will it comply with professional guidelines and values?
  • Am I comfortable with and will I be guilt-free pursuing the intended action/decision?
  • Would the most ethical person I know follow this course of action?
  • Would I follow this course of action with family and friends?
  • Would I want this done to me?
  • If a personal self-assessment reveals any negative responses, the intended action should most likely not be taken.

Professional Behavior

Some common characteristics noted among those considered to be successful include having a positive attitude, accepting challenges, and being considerate of others—even if it is not reciprocated. Professionals are often willing to take risks, negotiate, give and take constructive criticism, and move forward while projecting positive self-esteem, practicing assertiveness, demonstrating enthusiasm, and avoiding defensiveness.

Essential skills of the successful dental team member include the ability to motivate others, good oral and written communication skills, and the ability to think creatively and work successfully with others, in addition to demonstrated technical and clinical competencies. Desirable traits as a team member include being able to delegate effectively and being willing to assist coworkers while respecting the privacy and rights of others—as well as maintaining a sense of humor and calm demeanor. When dealing with patients and colleagues, characteristics of respect, empathy, fairness, cooperation, and tact should be displayed, and every effort should be made to communicate effectively with all members of the team—listening, sharing ideas, offering suggestions, following up, and being accountable for one’s actions.

Experiencing pressure in the workplace may be unavoidable, as supervisors set deadlines, coworkers make demands, and difficult patients require and expect polite attention. Pressure in making correct decisions under time constraints contributes to concerns about completing tasks within specified deadlines. Doubts about work abilities and career environment may also surface.

While some frustration is unavoidable in any job, professionals should strive to not become angry or emotional. Gossip should be avoided; ultimately, those who engage in such morale-damaging activities will earn reputations for being untrustworthy.

A willingness to assume additional responsibility is often the mark of an effective team member and leader. Those who take initiative, do what needs to be done without being asked, and seek opportunities to do more than the job requires may find that their efforts will make the position more diversified and interesting, enhance job security, and increase opportunities for career advancement. Professional learning is lifelong. Each setting or new situation requires additional knowledge—even for those with many years of education and experience.

Strategies for Overcoming Workplace Challenges

When problems occur in the workplace, begin by defining the problem, identifying and evaluating solutions. Once a decision is made based on these considerations, take specific action. When emotions run high—as they often do during stressful situations—some strategies may be employed to diffuse the situation and restore a calm demeanor. Familiar recommended strategies include counting, thinking of a serene location, and deep breathing. Identify the real problem and source of the anger: It is much more productive to channel energy into problem solving. Wait until calm is restored to discuss issues; thoughts should then be organized and delivered slowly in a soft voice. Thinking before speaking is often most beneficial.

A well-known strategy for handling difficult tasks starts with breaking large tasks into smaller steps, with the completion of each step carefully scheduled. If deadlines are unrealistic, the team member needs to ask for assistance and clarification of assignments and, if appropriate, deadlines should be re-established as soon as possible. Developing a “to do” list is a helpful tool that enables the team member to prioritize duties and cross tasks off the list once completed. Although the established deadline may be swiftly approaching, sometimes it is healthy to take a brief time out to approach the task with a fresh outlook and reflect on what has been accomplished.

Communication Skills

Good communication skills are critical for the allied health professional and can be enhanced through the avoidance of some common mistakes. Generally, team members need to be self-aware and open to changing behavior and attitudes that impede communication and contribute to workplace problems. It is important to also be aware of factors that affect communication and some techniques that can be used to facilitate the communication process.

Interpersonal communication depends on making thoughts, feelings, and needs known to others and hinges on the receptiveness of others to sharing similar information. The process is involved, encompassing the concerted efforts of multiple individuals.

Effective communication is facilitated by being courteous to the speaker, using good listening skills, displaying positive body language, being open-minded, and focusing on the importance of the message. It is helpful to be concise with statements and to repeat key concepts to ensure a clear understanding of what has been communicated. Being familiar with the personality traits of the other person is also helpful: Approaching people based on their communication behavior and accommodating their style can lead to more successful outcomes.

Communication should not be defensive or extreme when providing feedback or criticism. Typical communication difficulties include interrupting or displaying patronizing or close-minded behavior. It is also important to be aware of the impact of nonverbal communication, as that may be extremely detrimental in sending or receiving the intended message. Also to be considered are showing cultural sensitivity and allowing an appropriate amount of personal space—which may vary from one person to another—during communications.

The communication process includes the sender’s idea and filter, the message, the receiver’s filter and understanding, and feedback. During effective communication, thoughts and ideas should be offered in the appropriate manner so that others will listen. The speaker’s feelings affect how his or her message is sent and received. Confidence, comfort with offering suggestions, evaluation of the timeliness of the communication, and “status” relative to the person with whom the communication is occurring should all be considered. Generally, the more comfortable or positive the speaker’s self-concept, the more effective the communication. A strong self-concept deters the kind of defensive behavior that hinders communication. The sender’s perception of the importance of the message, comfort in delivering the message, determination of how to relay the message, and concern for how the message will be received all affect the outcome of the communication. Effective communication is increased if the sender feels positive or respectful toward the receiver; therefore, a conscious effort must be made to conceal negative or disrespectful feelings to enhance communication effectiveness.

Active Listening

How the speaker listens to others and conveys that to them are both factors impacting the listener. Effective listening is an active process. Effective listening requires paraphrasing and paying attention to nonverbal cues such as gestures, facial expressions, and body language. The communication process may be hindered by internally criticizing the speaker’s delivery, becoming emotional about a presented concept, listening for only certain facts and ignoring details, pretending to be attentive, and overreacting to certain words or phrases. The feelings and attitudes of the listener affect what is perceived. Therefore, it is most helpful to be open to the speaker—trying to hear what is being said rather than what has not been said—without interrupting. It is important to suspend making a judgment about the message, avoid distractions, and to pause and think before responding. Speakers should show interest nonverbally, avoid raising their own issues, and review critical information. Listeners should reflect on the message the speaker is trying to send and respond when appropriate.

Constructive Criticism

It is not always easy to hear what others are saying. Constructive, well-intentioned feedback relating to specific behavior provides opportunities for productive change. Feedback should be shared immediately and privately, and the only motive should be to help. For feedback—including criticism—to be received in the most positive way, the one providing it should be selective in choosing when and where to offer it, sharing positives, being specific, and focusing on behavior. It is also helpful to thank the person.

An awareness of the respective roles of the giver and receiver of the feedback may affect how the feedback should be delivered. To prevent misunderstanding, hurt feelings, and errors, use of effective feedback mechanisms is necessary—paraphrasing to clarify issues, using open-ended questions, and refraining from defensive responses, which block the feedback.

To guard against giving punitive feedback, it is recommended that feedback be kept specific and behavioral. If these guidelines are followed and the receiver becomes defensive, an effort should be made to clarify the feedback to be sure there is no misunderstanding of information. If necessary, the discussion should be rescheduled, at which time the parties should adhere to the issues and carefully explore the route of the difficulty.

Professionals should be able to give and receive constructive criticism. Constructive criticism is presented in a manner to help individuals learn and grow. It should be viewed in a positive light. Constructive criticism can be better accepted and even welcomed if viewed as an opportunity to succeed in the employment setting. Destructive criticism addresses attitude, is directed at the person rather than the behavior, is general, delayed, focuses on the negative, offers no solution, and is not confidential. With these differences in mind, comments should always be offered immediately and privately; they should be specific and include an outline of actions required and timelines for completion. It is important to compliment positive aspects of performance.


Negotiation is the ability to influence and affect others. Negotiating can be a positive experience when the parties agree to work together in an environment free of coercion and manipulation. Discussing factors honestly offers important insight into values, feelings, priorities, and viewpoints. It is important to confirm what has been heard and understood while each party considers its expectations, employing factors that facilitate effective communication. Before the meeting, the negotiator should define, clarify, and note important factors before sharing them with others.

Responsibility for building and maintaining a negotiated agreement should be shared and there should be a true commitment. Each party should assume responsibility for the integrity of what has been negotiated. It is critical to establish trust and respect, with both parties showing a willingness to listen and respond without the risk of manipulation or coercion.

Implementing Change

With the addition of new staff and reallocation of responsibility—and as new technology and treatment techniques emerge—change is bound to occur. Change typically triggers fear of the unknown and, therefore, may be met with stress and anxiety. Even a change for the better may be difficult to deal with effectively. Therefore, initiating change requires an understanding of the principles of change; it also requires commitment, as others may impede efforts to change the status quo. Those who are resistant to new ways may experience apathy and loss of motivation. These types of individual or group attitudes and responses can hinder change.

A range of reactions to change can be expected, including nervousness, fear, anger, stress, fatigue, denial, or resistance. Common responses to a proposal or implementation of change include: “This is the way we have always done it” and “I like things the way they are.” However, change can also generate a positive outlook—optimism, camaraderie, energy, and excitement. To implement change successfully, it is important to focus on the positive effects that change can bring and to be sensitive to others in preparing for and dealing with change.

Effectively dealing with change requires an assessment of both the current situation and what may be anticipated when the change occurs. Using forward-thinking skills, it is possible to identify the changes required to reach future goals. Developing a roadmap for achieving these goals begins with identifying them. It is also helpful to engage the support and assistance of those who have experienced and dealt successfully with major changes.

Preparing for and accepting change calls for an adjustment in attitude. To become more open to the process, it is important to realize that change is not always stressful and to recall positive experiences and results brought about by change. It is critical to focus on the outcome and to keep a positive perspective. Ultimately, taking some risk, becoming involved, and communicating with others for clarification and assistance help facilitate openness to change.

Those involved in the change process should be aware that being open to change and learning new ways of doing things opens the door to professional growth and opportunities.

The Practicing Professional

People want to be part of a team when they feel engaged, fulfilled, and are able to experience shared leadership, support, recognition, and a feeling of accomplishment; everyone contributes to a positive environment. Employers place value on individuals who fit well into the organizational structure and culture. Problem solving, critical thinking, and effective communication skills are qualities that are desired in workers. A leader should collaborate and involve the team in goal setting, making a point of offering feedback and praise. The accomplishments of the team and individuals of the team should be recognized.

Individuals should be organized and focused in handling assigned tasks, keeping these suggestions in mind: the member should maintain an organized, clean, neat work area; completion dates should be established and followed; difficult or lengthy tasks should be broken down into smaller, easier components and completed one step at a time; larger duties and tasks should be undertaken immediately, starting with the least desirable and most important tasks.

To continually improve work habits and clinical skills, team members should assume responsibility for their work, establish career goals, and develop a plan to reach the established goals. Goals should be specific, realistic, and measurable with established timelines, and be periodically reviewed and revised as needed. Once goals are reached or the situation changes, they should be re-evaluated to determine whether changes are needed. In addition to self-evaluation, feedback on work and performance from others should be sought.

Working together effectively starts with awareness of coworkers on the dental team. Team members should be positive—looking for solutions rather than listing complaints—assisting others, speaking optimistically about the team, and not placing blame.

The team should show a willingness to work well with everyone on the job to reach a common goal, offering help if needed. This means identifying the goal or purpose of the task, completing the steps leading to the goal, and asking for clarification if directions are not clearly understood.

Members should be able to ask questions or request needed support, resources, or training to complete the job. They should work efficiently and use time wisely, but readjust deadlines and expectations if necessary.

As every dental setting has a unique way of doing business, it is important to determine how to interact effectively with coworkers and patients, keeping in mind the highest ethical and professional standards and using effective communication skills.

About the Author

Carolyn Breen, EdD, CDA, RDA, RDH
Chair, Department of Allied Dental Education
School of Health Related Professions
University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey
Scotch Plains, New Jersey
American Dental Assistants Association

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