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Home | Women in dentistry | The 3 key elements to good listening skills f . . .

The 3 key elements to good listening skills for dentists and dental team members
Nancy Burkhart, RDH, EdD
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Listening has become a “lost art,” as Michael Nichols stated so well in his book The Lost Art of Listening. Society has become so bombarded with daily activities that many people don’t have time to listen or provide the attentive skills they once readily displayed for friends, family, neighbors, and patients. Listening skills carry over to all aspects of our personal and professional lives, and include our interactions with other office personnel, patients, colleagues, and family.

Good listening skills might be considered out-of-date, just as hand-written thank-you notes with carefully chosen words on beautiful stationery were once considered simply good manners. Good manners are often placed on the back burner with the rationale that our high-paced life has eliminated the expectation of interpersonal interaction.

John Hutsman, in his book Winners Never Cheat, writes about the lack of graciousness in business and the need for charity, sensitivity, and respect for others. Hutsman writes, “Everyone wants to feel noticed, respected, and valued.” A basic human need is to be heard, understood, and appreciated. Genuine listening means suspending memory, desire, and judgment, and - for a few moments at least - existing for the other person."

What are the key elements in listening well?

The 3 key elements of good active listening are: attending skills, following skills, and reflecting skills.

Attending skills

How do you know when someone is listening to you (and when you are listening to patients)?

• Appropriate posture is important. The posture of involvement says the person is showing interest in what you are saying. A comfortable social distance is also important in casual/professional conversation. In most social situations this is 2.5 to three feet, and less for personal situations.

• The person uses appropriate body language such as a nod and leans toward you. In direct communication, much of what we say is non-verbal.

• The person shows interest by keeping comfortable eye contact. The person may even gaze at the cheek rather than holding prolonged eye contact since this can be intimidating, especially is some cultures.

• During listening sessions, the person chooses a non-distracting environment that makes the conversation less threatening.

Following skills

How do you know when someone is listening to you (and when you are listening to patients)?

• The person uses “door openers” such as “Tell me what is on your mind.”

• The person uses “continuer's” such as “Please tell me more,” or “Please go on,” or “Yes, I see.”

• The person does not interrupt frequently and does not try to share his or her own experiences. In genuine listening, giving advice is not optimal. Most of the time the listener is somewhat like a mirror to the speaker, reflecting back and clarifying the speaker’s thoughts and emotions.

• The person listens with attentive silence.

• The person asks open-ended questions in order to continue following the thoughts that are expressed by the speaker.

Reflecting skills

How do you know when someone is listening to you (and when you are listening to patients)?

• The person paraphrases what you have said and repeats your thoughts in similar words in order to understand what has been said.

• The person reflects your basic emotions back such as “You sound very worried,” or “I detect fear in your voice.” The perceptive listener can discern the basic emotions of the speaker and refrain from judgment.

• The person reflects the meaning back to the speaker. Sometimes what we think we have heard is not what the speaker meant, so clarification is important. This gives the other person a chance to add new meaning and explanation to what he or she said. This key element of listening is often a problem for health-care providers because we think that we know all the answers before the person has even finished sharing their concerns.

Nancy Burkhart, RDH, EdD is on the faculty of the Baylor College of Dentistry. Her work with the treatment of oral lichen planus and as a dental hygienist led to her interest in the importance of listening to what patients are saying. "Within a few months, we realized that many people were not being heard and that patients needed someone to listen to their concerns, fears, and comments."

These key elements to listening appeared as part of a larger article The key role listening plays in dental patients with chronic diseases. How well do you listen to these patients? in the February 2006 issue of RDH, published by PennWell. For more information on Nancy and her work go to:; International Lichen Planus Self Help Web Site or e-mail her at:

It is published with the permission of the author Nancy Burkhart, RDH, EdD

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