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11.21.08 Issue #350 Forward This Newsletter To A Colleague

Dr. Nancy Haller
Dentist Coach
McKenzie Management
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Don’t Let Your Office Become A Battleground

Ignoring employee conflicts puts you and your practice at risk. A “war” might be a lawsuit against you for a hostile work environment, but more likely “combat” starts when feuding staff fail to communicate vital information about scheduling or billing.

Bottom line: Ignoring conflict costs you money!

Do yourself—and your wallet—a favor. Address disagreements and problems as soon as they occur. Here are some recommended steps:

1. Adjust your belief about conflict.
Conflict itself isn’t the problem; it’s the way you respond to conflict that can escalate or resolve it. Certainly we know what bad conflict looks like: verbal, emotional or physical violence. But remember that conflict can result in positive change, too. Conflict in the United States resulted in freedom for the nation in 1776, abolished slavery in 1865 and gave women the right to vote in 1920. Accept that conflict is a natural part of life and deal with it up front.

2. Know your “hot buttons” and response to conflict.
In my last article, I listed five styles of conflict. If you are avoidant, competitive or accommodating more often than compromising or collaborative, take a class in assertiveness or mediation, or work with a coach to improve your ability to handle conflict constructively. Become more comfortable staying engaged and composed, regardless of how difficult a situation might be.

3. Communicate, communicate, communicate.
Nothing gets resolved if people stop talking. Rather than trying to stop conflict, meet it head on. Explore what’s behind the frustration or anger that people are expressing in their words or actions. Ask open-ended questions.

4. Listen, listen, listen.
It has been said that we have one mouth and two ears because we are supposed to listen twice as much as talk. The power and value of listening, especially in conflict situations, is monumental. When you are in a discussion about a conflict, rephrase what you hear to show that you are listening and to assure the speaker you heard correctly. Refrain from trying to fix the problem too quickly. Strive for understanding before resolution. Show empathy. Acknowledging employees’ feelings and motives is not the same as agreeing with them.

5. Be curious, not furious.
Our natural reaction to conflict, especially if we feel threatened, is to become defensive. Manage yourself. Stay calm. Use a neutral voice, even if the other person is heated up. Move the discussion to a private area, especially if there are patients within hearing range. Give the other person time to vent. Don’t interrupt or judge what they are saying. Thank them for letting you know how they are feeling and what they are experiencing. Rather than attempt a premature remedy, agree to talk about it after a cooling off period.

6. Work the issue, not the person.
When you are convinced that you fully understand the problem, acknowledge where you agree and disagree. Avoid blaming. Use “I,” not “you.” Talk in terms of the present as much as possible. Ask, “What can we do to make things better?” Identify at least one action that each person will do and get commitment for the plan. Set up a future meeting to discuss progress.

7. Develop a feedback-based culture in your office. Make frequent, two-way communication a natural part of your daily practice. Just as it’s important to praise and reward people when things are right, it’s essential to give feedback when you want something to change. Feedback is nothing more than data or information. Get individual ego out of this exchange; learn to de-personalize and help your staff to do the same. Ask them to give you feedback by answering three simple questions: What should I continue doing? What should I stop doing? What should I start doing? Keep the attitude that holding different views is both normal and healthy to a group. Use patience and persistence, and practice good people skills. Model open communication and feedback. Make your office a peace zone.

Dr. Haller offers basic training for interpersonal communication, conflict management and team building. If you would like information about any of her practice-building seminars, contact her at

Interested in having Dr. Haller speak to your dental society or study club? Click here.

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