Lucy Nichols shares her top tips for starting conversations and building relationships with patients

For many dentists, especially those who are a little more introverted, small talk may not come easily.

As with anything, it does get easier with practice, so this skill (like many others) is more challenging early-on in a dental career.

Making small talk is essential to make patients feel comfortable and relaxed, and to start building rapport. People tend to stick with a dentist who they feel comfortable with, and tend to be ignorant of their dentist’s technical ability.

So here is my advice for making chit-chat, whether you need conversation starters to get you going as you welcome a patient into your surgery, or to prevent an awkward silence while you wait for the local anaesthetic to kick in.

Ready for the weekend

Despite the blues, Mondays are easy – the obvious conversation starter is: ‘How was your weekend?’

Hopefully they did something exciting, giving you ample opportunity to ask further questions, and maybe mention what you did at the weekend too.

When Friday arrives, you can ask what their plans are, or if they have anything special planned. However, some people don’t do much at the weekend, so you might need to use a different approach.

Plans for the day

If your patient attends in the morning, try asking what they are doing for the rest of the day. The key to small talk is to start with one leading question, then enquire further or add your own small comment.

If they are going straight into work, you could ask if they have a busy day ahead. Where is it that they work? Have they been in the job long? Do they like it where they work? Do they have a good team?

Even if their job initially sounds dull, if you make a genuine effort then you may be surprised at how interesting it can be. I once had a long chat with someone about his packaging business – it was fascinating!

If the patient attends in the afternoon, you can ask them about their morning. There are multiple directions that these conversations can take when you meet so many different people in your practice every day.

Time for celebrations

You can ask people what their plans are for the holidays, whether it’s Christmas, Easter, Eid, Diwali or Hanukkah.

Are they hosting or doing all the cooking? Everyone loves talking about their complicated family politics and their fun celebrations.

If you’re not sure if they celebrate Christmas or other holidays, then just ask!

Family

If you know your patient has children or grandchildren, ask their ages and either make a mental note, or cheat by making a note on your dental software.

Next time they come, ask them about the children or grandchildren. By being aware of the ages, you can ask targeted questions like: ‘Your youngest must have started school now, how’s she getting on?’ Patients will love that you’ve remembered this and shown such an interest.

Build a relationship

There are so many topics that you can talk about with your patients, but the key is that if you put the effort in to finding out more about them, then they are more likely to be loyal and enjoy their appointments.

If you find small talk difficult, then hopefully these little tips will give you a helping hand to kick start conversations and start building the rapport needed for long and successful patient relationships.