Humility and Relationships




In Humble Inquiry, Edgar Schein discussed some pretty risky but rewarding behavior which, I think, is critical to a relationship driven practice and life.

You see, many of us were taught that the hierarchical, authoritarian model was the way to live and work.

At home, I’m the father. The bread winner. The provider of all the tools needed for success. My family simply needs to listen to me and everything will be right.


In the office, I’m the practice owner. I’m the boss. I’m the doctor. I’m risking it all for my success. I know how to fix your problem. Therefore, team members (read employees) and patients need to do nothing more than listen to me.




If my wife and my now grown kids heard me say this with any degree of seriousness, they would – at best-  laugh at me.


In the office, if my team heard me in the same way, they would either roll their eyes or look for another job. And if my patients heard me say this, followed by an authoritarian case presentation, their response would be the classic “Well, I’ll think about it” And I’d likely never see them again.


And if I were serious about those statements, there would be far less liquor in my house and even less hair on my head


Life is about relationships built on respect, trust, and love. Life is about listening and understanding. Life is about the open and safe exchange of ideas. Life is about humble inquiry. And, although dentistry used to be about the all-knowing doctor providing remedies to the subservient patient, our profession has become more about the same principles of humble inquiry. That, my friends, is a change for the better.


One of the challenges to maintaining a rewarding practice is creating a safe environment for the exchange of critical personal information. Within the limits of what is legal, if we engage our teams in some exchanges of personal information, we deepen those relationships and build loyalty, productivity, and, I dare say, a bit of love into our workplace. If we know our likes and dislikes, our hopes and fears, our challenges and triumphs, we bond so much better.


And if we somehow unlock the door to our patients’ minds and understand who they are, we can take the role of doctor to once unattainable levels. If we truly know the people we serve and act on a mission of altruism, we can use our relationship skills to motivate them to become as healthy as they want to be.


So how do we do all this?


Let’s understand what Schein calls Here and Now Humility


We went to college and dental school. We take God-knows-how-many hours of Continuing Education in the areas of our choosing. Indeed, we may well be more educated than our teams and our patients. We may have a clear and unmistakable vision for our practices and for our patients’ health. But we need our team to support and help us on our mission. They know more about some things than we do. They will see things that we occasionally cannot see. We need to be humble enough to create a safe environment for them to (get ready for this) point out the things we do not see or do not know.

And we certainly know more about occlusion, caries, periodontal disease, health, wellness, than those we serve. But our services are, for he most part, elective. There are so many ways to get a person to health. And each person has his or her own paradigm of what health, comfort, function, and esthetics are. Each person has his or her own intrinsic motivators and there are dozens of dentists they can choose if they don’t like our message or do not feel connected to us.


Here’s a suggestion for you: ask a team member how they’re doing. Then listen generously without interrupting. Listen carefully and follow up with another open- ended question about what they discussed. Allow them to open up a bit. Be supportive if they express some frustration. Be a cheerleader if they talk about something great. Perhaps then, or perhaps on another occasion, talk about something important to you. Let them get to know your human side. Allow them to see your vulnerability. Make it safe for them (within legal limits, of course), to be vulnerable, as well. It will take your relationships to much higher levels.


And how about using those same principles in your pre-clinical interviews? If you’re not doing pre clinical interviews, try doing one with a new or existing patient. Once you get good at it, you’ll love it. Dr Pankey taught us to never treat a stranger. It makes so much sense to earn trust and learn how to motivate each individual who joins your team or asks you for help.


Humility is the key to riches in every sense. Try it!


Dr. Stern

804 W. Park Ave.
Ocean, NJ 07712
(732) 493-8030

A National Guard Soldier with Attitude




Many of you know that I spend a fair amount of weekends treating National Guard soldiers. I am privileged to work with an outstanding team of dentists, physicians, auxiliary personnel, and administrators. Our dental team is charged with providing soldiers with triage and very basic dental services. Our mission is to free our heroes of any condition which could lead to needless pain and suffering, especially if they are deployed overseas to defend our nation. We are civilians serving in collaboration with our State Dental Officers, practicing dentists who belong to the Guard. Our team sees between 200 and 400 soldiers a day, which is no small feat.

I spent this past Saturday with our terrific team at a military base near my home here in New Jersey. Our work load was light but steady and, as usual, we were moving nicely through our process. About halfway through our day, I encountered a Sergeant who appeared very stone faced and almost hostile, despite my best efforts to establish a small relationship in the short time I have with these people. The Sergeant refused to answer any of the necessary questions I had about his medical history. He clearly was looking at me as some tooth fixer who had no business doing anything beyond looking at his teeth and getting him out of my presence.

I was clearly thrown by the Sergeant’s hostility towards the universally (?) likable, relationship centered, people- loving me. I always take time to make our soldiers comfortable; yet, I was met with borderline nastiness from this sergeant. Because of his lack of cooperation, I was unable to finish his triage to the standards the military needed, but I also knew that I could not coerce this man into giving me the information I needed. So I curtly dismissed him, forms filled out as best I could, and sent him on his way. He won, I lost, so I thought.  Something was very wrong and I just couldn’t pinpoint it.

During my usual fifteen minute lunch break, I discussed this soldier’s situation with our State Dental Officer, an insightful, compassionate Colonel who is deeply dedicated to the well-being of his soldiers. I’ve known this man for 7 years and we share a tremendous respect for one another.  The Colonel informed me that the soldiers we were seeing were all MMRs- Multiple Medical Resource; that is, they are affected by past combat experience (read PTSD). That explained everything and reinforced a principle that is key to dentistry ( and life, for that matter).).

You see, my Sergeant-with-an-attitude turns out to be a hero. He is carrying demons in his soul that neither I nor any untrained individual could comprehend. He must have encountered some awful emotional trauma overseas that he could not bear to discuss with a stranger. Although I very wisely backed off insisting that he disclose information that I was legitimately “entitled” to know, I did not fully grant this gentleman the dignity and love (yes, I said love) he has earned from me and 300 million people he has never met.

The lesson here for all of us is that every person we encounter has a story. At any given moment, we all are carrying thoughts of love, happiness, sorrow, stress, triumph, and tragedy. And at any given moment, any one of those emotions could dictate how we react to anything or anyone.

In our military work, there is not a whole lot of time to conduct relationship – creating interviews and guide people to their best dental and health decisions. But in our practices and in our daily lives, we have multiple opportunities to connect, co- discover, and empower other human beings to become better. A relationship centered dentist (and spouse, parent, sibling, friend, etc) has the ability to spend time understanding the person who is asking for help. Relationships of legitimate concern and empathy lead to outcomes that are magical, healing, and inspiring. Relationships reward us not only  with a great career which brings us a good livelihood, but also with  things that transcend material wealth. It’s no wonder that Dr Bob Barkley taught us that the health of the relationship is far more important than the health of the patient.

I love treating fearful patients and I love my soldiers. Yesterday’s experience was a reminder that I am a very good, but not perfect practitioner of relationship centered work and life. I hope I can meet my Sergeant-with-an-attitude sometime in the future and thank him for making me a better person. And I do hope that when I meet him again that he will be freed of the burden he bears from his work defending all of us.

If you see a soldier, please thank him or her. Commit an act of kindness toward them if you can. They take tremendous risk so that we can live as we do.

And when that patient -with-an – attitude visits your office, take the time you need  to learn their story. Whether it’s a minute, and hour, or 3 appointments, make it your highest priority to know your patient.  When you know  who they are, what their joys, sorrows, triumphs and defeats are AND when they know you’re sincerely concerned, your work will be meaningful, therapeutic, and tremendously rewarding.


Dr. Stern

804 W. Park Ave.
Ocean, NJ 07712
(732) 493-8030