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Sep 2016


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How to move the conversation when chairside chatter turns to politics


by Joanna Brown

Small talk around the office is intended to put everyone at ease. It makes workdays more pleasant for the staff and helps patients feel more comfortable in your care. Topics may vary (the weather, your favorite baseball team’s latest winning streak, a new restaurant moving in down the block), but proceed with caution. During this lively election season, casual conversation about political candidates can quickly become heated.

Consider your chairside conversation topics ahead of time to keep the mood light and patients coming back for the quality of the care you provide, rather than repelled by the politics you practice.

“You’re not trying to put up a wall if your patient wants to talk politics, but be ready to move the conversation to more solid ground so that you’re not in an uncomfortable position,” advised Kathy Schaeffer, president of the Chicago-based public relations firm Kathy Schaeffer & Associates, Inc. She offered dentists and their staffs several ways to respond when a patient asks, “So, Doc, who are you with this November?”

“A good rule of thumb is that people think you’re a great conversationalist if you let them do the talking,” Ms. Schaeffer said. “Have a few questions ready like, ‘What do you like best about that candidate?’ or ‘Have you ever seen them speak in person?’ These will help you avoid putting yourself in a place where the patient can disagree with you, and it makes the patient feel like you are listening to their opinion.”

Another strategy is to bridge that very specific question of who you will be voting for to a very general answer about the topic at hand: the patient’s oral health.

“You could say something like, ‘You know, I find politics interesting but right now I’m really interested in getting this bridge to fit just right. Can you look up and turn your heard a bit to the left?’ or ‘We can surely talk about that, but first let’s talk about your home hygiene habits,’” Ms. Schaeffer said.

But if you consider yourself a political junkie and believe that this is the Most Wonderful Time of the Year, move the conversation away from individual candidates and toward the democratic process we’re all enjoying. Think back to the first time you voted, and swap stories with the patient about the first candidate that really caught your attention. Or, share with the patient a story about how your children are digesting the election process. They are sure to have some diverse political viewpoints; share one of the more humorous dinner table debates with your patient.

“Definitely have those anecdotes ready – the ones that are general and non-heated,” Ms. Schaeffer said. Talk about that night in July that you were out to dinner and the restaurant cleared out because people wanted to get home to watch the conventions on television.“If you like using humor in your practice, consider the hats worn by delegates at each party’s convention, or find ways to poke fun at our political process,” Ms. Schaeffer suggested. “Do so generally, so that you aren’t addressing the merit of the candidates.”

Your staff will undoubtedly face the same questions from the patients they see, so schedule a staff meeting to discuss how to manage the situation.

“Brainstorm together, so that everyone has a few stories in their pocket that they can fall back on as needed; the hygienists can then say, ‘You know, we were talking about the election just the other day, and our receptionist had the funniest story about a mock election they had when she was in middle school,’” Ms. Schaeffer said. “Your staff might even have better ideas than you for some questions to ask patients to keep the patients talking and the staff listening in these situations.”

The views expressed in this column are those of the writer and not necessarily the opinions of the Chicago Dental Society. CDS presents Practice Smarts, a column addressing practice management issues dentists and staff members experience in the office.

Practice Smarts is prepared by Joanna Brown, a freelance journalist.

Email suggestions for topics to be covered to Joanna

Photo: Zhou Eka/