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How To Share "The Trail" Successfully —
A 10 Step Approach to Conflict Management

By Karen Cortell Reisman, MS published in Dental Economics (September, 2000)*

A rather narrow cement bike trail extends for 7 miles from North Dallas to White Rock Lake. This trail is used by a variety of people for an equal variety of reasons. Fast roller bladers, slow walkers, baby strollers, joggers, children on training wheel bikes, speed bikers, and pets of all shapes and sizes use this trail at the same time.

Ten rules are suggested to all users as a way to share this trail successfully.

  • Don't block the trail.
  • Use lights at night.
  • Keep right.
  • Be predictable.
  • Give audible signal when passing.
  • Clean up litter.
  • Do not use trail under the influence of alcohol or drugs.
  • Yield when entering and crossing trails.
  • Pass on left.
  • Be courteous.

Similarly, in the dental practice, people are expected to "walk down the trail" with a variety of personality types with an equal variety of needs, agendas, circumstances. This article provides 10 tools to manage conflict utilizing the White Rock Trail Guidelines.

1. Don't Block the Trail

Rather than adding to the congestion within the dental office, which causes the trail to become blocked, everyone needs to put 3 imaginary dabs of super glue on their lips...then clamp down. When your lips are stuck together you are forced to shut up and listen. To unclog conflict, everyone (and that includes the dentist, too) needs to listen non-judgmentally.

2. Use Lights at Night

Sometimes in the work setting it seems as if we're operating "in the dark" due to unpredictable customers, timing conflicts, missing data, etc. On the bike trail you need to use lights to see in the dark. On the "office trail" you need your systems' lights on, in order to avoid conflict. Yes, there will always be times of communication breakdown, but a conflict can be reduced when smooth policies exist. Even better, get your team to help establish policies so that there is mutual ownership and knowledge of office procedures.

3. Keep Right

Bikers, walkers, joggers, and baby strollers need to stay on the right side of the trail in order to avoid collisions. Similarly, in the dental office, doing the "right things" maintains harmony.

In trying to "keep right", Colleen McKenna writes in Powerful Communication Skills about 4 consecutive steps the team can use to defuse potential conflicts: a. define the problem by saying, "I hear..." b. look for agreement by saying, "I agree..." c. understand feelings by saying, "I understand..." d. state views calmly by saying, "I think...." The benefit for everyone is to treat the other person with respect, listen until you "experience the other side", and state your views, needs and feelings. By using this approach, empathy increases as hostility decreases.

4. Be Predictable

It's important to be predictable on a narrow, multi-use bike trail, or someone could get hurt. The challenge is how to stay predictable in unpredictable situations in a busy dental office, without becoming "mentally hurt".

C. Leslie Charles suggests in The Customer Service Companion, The Essential Handbook For Those Who Serve Others these 6 steps on how to maintain predictability during crazy times. 1. Let the other person explain. 2. Investigate the situation thoroughly. 3. State that you want to help. 4. Talk in a calm, sincere manner. 5. Empathize with the person. 6. Neutralize the atmosphere by remaining positive.

5. Give Audible Signal When Passing

Sometimes you have to pass around an obstacle, and on the bike trail you give a verbal signal. Likewise, in the office you have to deal with patients and colleagues who hurl obstacles in your path. The premise is that while others are often wrong, there is no future in making them feel wrong.

Expectations must be stated up-front. Again, C. Leslie Charles provides 4 verbal signals on how to handle this type of situation.

  • Respond with a neutral statement first like, "I appreciate your asking about that....", or "Other people have been under that impression...".
  • Gently correct the other's perceptions by saying, "Actually, what you really need to do is....", or, "The correct procedure is..."
  • Let the listener know the next step in the process by saying, "So all we need to do now is...."
  • Express your appreciation and anticipation of a positive outcome.

6. Clean Up Litter

Just as on a nature trail, we leave debris on the office trail. OR we need to deal with debris left by others, as we march through the business process. Cleaning up after ourself and/or others is an important part of professionalism. One form of "litter" that leads to conflict is upset people. Here are 5 steps on how to deal with upset people, without getting upset.

  • Relax and take a few deep breaths. The old adage of counting to 10 really works.
  • Listen to the words and feelings. Often, people just need to vent. It's your responsibility to listen without taking anything too personally.
  • As hard as this seems, stay objective.
  • Take the necessary steps that you can, and explain your methodology to the other.
  • Keep your ego down, and your empathy up. In this way you will concentrate on the results and not on who's right and who's wrong.

  • Do Not Use the Trail Under the Influence of Alcohol or Drugs

I wish that valium or vodka could provide the permanent solutions to problems, but it just ain't so. Either on a bike trail or the business trail, you need 2 other V's: value and vigor in order to communicate effectively.

Value means giving more than is required. Vigor means to bring your enthusiasm, smile, and positive attitude to the table.

8. Yield When Entering and Crossing Trails

Trails cross, but there are ways to avoid collisions. First, you need to pick your battles. Figure out what issues are worth fighting for BEFORE you've opened your mouth. Second, try a sense of humor. If possible, image yourself as a fly on the wall while in the midst of your chaos, and see if there is anything funny about the situation. It might not be appropriate to laugh at that moment; but, finding the humor will help calm the waters. Third, visualize your outcome. Image what results you want and then navigate towards that picture.

9. Pass On The Left

Change can be stressful. On the bike trail, that means moving out of your lane, and into a different mode. Grace McGartland in her book Thunderbolt Thinking illustrates how we can move out of our comfort zone and embrace change in a positive way. McGartland proposes that Thunderbolt Thinkers embody the following:

  • Flexibility - Another name for change
  • Awareness - Inside and outside
  • Courage - Risk and vulnerability
  • Humor
  • Action - A can-do attitude

10. Be Courteous

As hard as it may be in certain situations, life on any trail is easier if we remain courteous. Put down this article right now and go thank somebody, specifically and sincerely, for whatever they've done that you've been meaning to acknowledge...but haven't.

Saying thanks feels good, for you and the recipient. Recently I discovered that a retired teacher had donated $10,000 to the Dallas Holocaust Museum, and I wanted to thank this mysterious donor. Upon doing some research, the philanthropic person happened to be my high school senior English teacher that I had not seen in many years. I was able to thank her in person and renew old ties.

Saying "thank you", either in person, or by email, phone, voicemail, or snail mail is a wonderful way to increase good will for everyone.

Good luck as you and your team and patients walk, jog, crawl, bike, and skip down all of your various life trails.

Sources: C. Leslie Charles, The Customer Service Companion...The Essential Handbook for Those Who Serve Others. Yes! Press, 1996

Grace McGartland, Thunderbolt Thinking....Transform Your Insights & Options Into Powerful Business Results, Bernard-Davis, 1994

Colleen McKenna, Powerful Communication Skills...How to Communicate with Confidence, Career Press, 1998

***** *Reprinted with permission by Dental Economics

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