4 ways to solve patient conflict through empathy 

a dentist talks to a patient over the phone


As much as we wish all patients were 100% satisfied every visit, we all know the occasional flare-up of tension is unavoidable.

The good news is that most conflict can be diffused by practicing empathy, the act of sensing other people’s emotions and the ability to imagine what someone else might be thinking or feeling. Utilizing empathy helps build trust by adding an important human touch to the conversation and can show the patient that you are actively trying to address their concern.

Here are four strategies to get you started on the path toward empathetic conflict resolution.

Apologies go a long way

It’s important to remember that saying you are sorry is not the same as admitting fault. By apologizing to the patient, you are demonstrating that you understand the situation has caused them harm and made them feel negatively about your practice.  

By offering a sincere apology such as, “I am so sorry you’ve had to deal with this,” you are already taking a big step in diffusing the tension. But be mindful of your tone: a thoughtless apology may sound apathetic and could escalate the conflict.


Be an active listener

One of the best ways you can express empathy is to be an active listener. More than just hearing the words, active listening involves giving the speaker your entire attention and using all of your senses to stay engaged.

As a dental professional, it is likely you may know the answer to the patient’s concern as they are explaining the situation. But it’s important to not interrupt or fill in gaps of silence with words like, “uh-huh,” and “sure.” This makes you sound impatient and ready to end the conversation.  


Another active listening tactic is asking for clarity. Repeating what the patient has told you is helpful in two ways: it ensures you have captured the patient’s concerns accurately and gives the patient reassurance that you have been listening. For instance, try using, “If I am understanding correctly,” or “Let me repeat that back to make sure I captured all the details.”


Put yourself in their shoes

If you are able to identify the patient’s emotion, a statement to show their feelings are validated can go a long way in diffusing conflict. For example, if they are calling about a filling that fell out, you could use a statement such as, “I would be upset if that happened to me, too.”

Conversely, if a similar situation has happened to you, share it with the patient. This not only strengthens your connection with the patient, but it also once again validates their concern by knowing someone else has had a similar problem.

Show your gratitude and appreciation

It’s always important to thank the patient for taking the time to reach out at the end of the interaction. It allows for the conversation to be reframed in a positive way and show you are receptive to future problem resolution.

You can also take it one step further by showing appreciation throughout the conversation, such as thanking them for their patience if you put them on hold or when they provide information to help resolve the problem.


The bottom line: Most conflicts can be resolved by practicing empathy. A sincere apology can go a long way in diffusing tension. Be an active listener and ask for clarity to make sure both parties are on the same page. Make emotional connections to build trust. Show your gratitude for the patient’s time to reframe the conversation in a positive way.