BY DR. LISA KNOWLES, Intentional Dental, as featured in Incisal Edge

“IF YOU HOLD the suction this way, you’d help retract the cheek better,” I coached my dental assistant one afternoon.

“I can’t put my fingers that way,” she insisted. “It never works for me.”

And so we struggled our way through the appointment. I couldn’t see a thing, and she kept sucking up the patient’s cheek.

Being a coach is one of the most challenging aspects of dentistry. Yet we often find ourselves in that position right after graduation. Sometimes we’re simultaneously coached by senior team members while coaching entry-level staff. The first lesson in coaching is to look inward and ask, “Am I coachable?” This will help you establish protocols for such moments with others — and as such, here are a few rules I try to apply to dental coaching in my practice.

Rule #1: Care enough to challenge your team. Talk with them about their mistakes, and praise their positives. Not providing feedback demonstrates a fear of confrontation or a lack of concern for your team’s development. If the leader doesn’t care, why should anyone else?

Rule #2: Don’t assume someone else will provide feedback, or that it’s outside your purview. A formal annual review isn’t enough; feedback should come weekly, at a minimum.

Rule #3: Just do it. That’s only way to get better at this critical skill. You won’t be perfect; I could kick myself for some of the things I’ve said to my staff. To this day, it’s a work in progress — and it does get easier.

Rule #4: Build a good leadership reference library. It’ll be invaluable when you’re dealing with human-resources issues. I read as much about leadership as I do about clinical dentistry; you need many perspectives to understand how others think and are likely to react.

Rule #5: Make coaching fun for you, too. Create that win-win situation in which you get to revel in others’ progress and your staff can move along the development continuum that suits them best.

Rule #6: Forgive. Nothing wrecks team cohesion faster than the inability to forgive. Nurse your patients, not your grudges.

Rule #7: Be open to feedback from everyone. It’s tough for a doctor (for fear of being challenged) to offer feedback to the staff, and even more difficult for the staff (for fear of being fired) to give feedback to the doctor. Don’t let that kind of fear rule your practice.

My dental assistant, it turned out, was right: She really couldn’t place her fingers the way I suggested. So we coached each other through the process. At root, dental coaching is about communicating well. It’ll never be perfect, but the faster a team can move in and out of conflicts, the better the patient outcomes — and the more satisfying the work environment.


Dr. Lisa Knowles has practiced for 16 years. She founded IntentionalDental
Consulting ( to help dentists achieve greater peace in their practices. She blogs regularly at