The wisdom of positive language

Dr Barry Oulton explores the hidden power of language and offers advice for improving patient outcomes simply and easily by adopting a positive communication style.



Did you know that your unconscious mind cannot process a negative?


If I were to say to you, ‘Don’t think of a dental chair’, you have to imagine a dental chair in order not to think of a dental chair. Even for a brief, fleeting moment, you will have an internal representation (a picture, movie, sound, feeling or self-talk) of a dental chair.


When my daughter was young and I didn’t know about this, I would say things like, ‘Sweetheart, don’t spill the juice’, or, ‘careful, don’t trip’.


Whilst I had a positive intent for her to keep the juice in the glass and for her to stay upright and not hurt her knees, I was increasing the likelihood of her spilling her juice or even falling over.


Why? Because in order for her to understand what ‘not spilling her drink’ looked like, she had to create a picture, sound or movie in her head (an internal representation) of spilling the drink.


It was almost like a mini rehearsal for the main event that, invariably, resulted in me on my hands and knees mopping up juice and saying ‘I told you not to spill it’, which left both her and me frustrated or upset.


Wow, what a situation; the poor child gets told off for doing exactly what I had, unintentionally, told her to do.


So, once I learned this nugget, I would make every effort to stop myself coming out with a negative and to change it to a positive before I spoke. For example, ‘Sweetheart, carry your glass really carefully’.


I had the same positive intent and dramatically increased the likelihood of her keeping the liquid in the glass because she had to create an internal representation of carrying the glass carefully rather than spilling it. Make sense?


Positivity in practice


So, how can this be useful in your life as a dental hygienist or therapist?


Well, let’s look at some of the things you might begin to be aware of that are said every day to your patients by you and your team. Firstly, a disclaimer: I know that you have a positive intent for your patients and with some practise and effort you will be able to influence them even better than you already do.


In my dental practice, we used to say things like this:

‘It’s okay, it won’t hurt.’

‘There won’t be any pain.’

‘Don’t be scared.’

‘Don’t worry.’

‘This won’t be uncomfortable.’

‘I don’t want you to be nervous.’


What internal representations do you think these statements created in the minds of our patients?


Now, clearly, we had a positive intent of reassuring our patients and wanting them to be and feel comfortable, yet we were actually increasing their anxiety, creating pictures, sounds and images in their minds of pain, worry, nervousness and discomfort.


If you think about it for a second, you already knew this rule. Have you ever had a 3- or 4-year-old in your practice and Mum says, ‘I’ve told little Chester not to worry’? Your heart sank, didn’t it? Because you knew this was not helping you or little Chester, despite Mum’s best intentions.


Action point

Consider the common phrases you and your team use on a daily basis, have a team meeting or lunch and learn and write them down.


Once you have exhausted your list, come up with an alternative phrase that is stated as a positive, one that will increase the likelihood of your patient creating a positive internal representation (and feel free to email me with any questions at


For example:


‘It’s okay, it won’t hurt.’ ‘It’s okay, it will be comfortable.’

‘There won’t be any pain.’ ‘I’m going to be gentle.’

‘Don’t worry.’ ‘Stay relaxed.’

‘This won’t be uncomfortable.’ ‘This will be comfortable.’

‘I don’t want you to be nervous.’ ‘I want you to be calm and. chilled.’


Action point

Take a good look at your marketing material, website, your patient lounge and patient information leaflets, etc. Check for negative language in all material and look to re-write it in a positive way. For example, consider changing ‘pain-free dentistry’ to ‘comfortable and caring’.


Watch your ‘buts’


Can you remember a time when a friend said something potentially nice and then used the word ‘but’?


Did your heart sink a little, did you feel that they didn’t really mean the compliment?

Hey, I love your new hair cut … but…’

‘I love you … but …’

‘Well done, you did a great job of that … but…’

‘That’s a beautifully shaped composite … but …’


At a subconscious level, the word ‘but’ negates or cancels everything that goes before it and is generally accepted as an indication that the really important part of the sentence is coming up.


Before I knew this, I would compliment my nurses for a great job and remind them that the surgery needed to be stocked, and I was surprised when they seemed a little grumpy and felt unappreciated.


I would say, ‘Guys, you worked really well today … but … can you make sure the surgery is stocked up please?’


By using the word ‘but’ they didn’t hear my compliment and gratitude, which was genuine.


I was also guilty of doing something similar to my children:

Sweetheart, I love you … but … can you be a bit quieter please?’

‘Brilliant results, 9 A’s … but … what happened with the B in Geography?’


There are hidden ‘buts’ too that create the same effect; the words ‘however’ and ‘yet’ can have the same impact:

‘I enjoyed your presentation … however …’

‘You made sense of that … and yet …’.


Okay, so what to do instead? You simply replace the word ‘but’ with ‘and’.


Instead of:

Guys, you worked really well today … but… can you make sure the surgery is stocked up please?’

‘Sweetheart, I love you … but … can you be a bit quieter please?’

‘You are doing a great job … but … I’d like you to be more involved in team meetings.’

‘You could crown the broken tooth, but a filling is a cheaper option.’ (Guess what your patient will choose to have done?)



Guys, you worked really well today, and can you make sure the surgery is stocked up please?’

‘Sweetheart, I love you and can you be a bit quieter please?’

‘You are doing a great job and I’d like you to be more involved in team meetings.’

‘You could crown the broken tooth and a filling is a cheaper option’.


This can also be used when discussing oral hygiene with patients. Armed with this new knowledge, what do you think will happen if you say to a patient, ‘It’s great that you have been cleaning between your teeth, but let me show you a great new product?


Do you think that patient feels praised and open to learning an improved technique or are they fed up and have switched off? Exactly!


Instead, you could say, ‘It’s great that you have been cleaning between your teeth and let me show you a great new product that will make it even easier for you.’


Using ‘and’ gives equal weight to both parts of the sentence, they feel the praise and are open to the new techniques.


Using this language skill opens the door for you to share what kinds of techniques and tools will make patients’ lives easier and achieve better results for them - and less frustration for you, too.


For example, ‘I personally use Wisdom products because they are easy and quick to use, function really well and offer great value for money. I clean interdentally once a day with them AND brush twice a day.’ (Note the ‘and’ not ‘but’, please; if you put a ‘but’ somewhere in there, the message will be lost.)




Use ‘but’ with purpose or ‘on-purpose’


Whilst I encourage you to watch your ‘buts’ carefully, I also want you to be aware of when you can use it purposefully.


If you know that one treatment option is better for your patient than another, you can ethically influence them to make a better choice.


For example, in sales, use ‘but’ to negate a product or service whilst emphasising the better choice.


You could fill that tooth … but… a stronger option would be to crown it.’

‘You could have a denture to fill that gap … but… you will have to take it out to clean it …and… you don’t have to do that with an implant.’

‘You can pay over 10 months … but… you can have a 5% discount when you pay in full up front.’


Action point

10 years ago, my then 8-year-old became the ‘but’ police at home. She would playfully catch us out when we used it. With time and practise we became much better at changing our language ‘and’ using it on purpose. Please practise this language skill and be your team’s ‘but’ police!


Self-motivation – flipping your ‘but’


Often, we can talk ourselves out of doing something beneficial by using ‘but’ in our self-talk. To increase your motivation and your results, try flipping your ‘but’ sentence: ‘I really need to go for a run but it’s raining.’ Do you think I would end up going for a run? No!


So, by flipping the sentence in my head to: ‘It’s raining but I really need to go running’, I have a complete change in focus and motivation. I am moved to find a solution for running or exercising rather than sitting down in front of the TV.


Action point

Practise flipping your motivational ‘buts’ and see what changes you get in your results.


There’s more that can help…


If you would like to learn more about effective communication,Wisdom and The Confident Dentist Academy are working together on a highly innovative educational campaign to support dental professionals to encourage habit change in patients.


Dr Oulton will also be speaking at the BSDHT Conference on Friday 22nd November in a presentation entitled: ‘The Wisdom of Great Oral Hygiene Habits’.

For further details about Dr Barry Oulton and The Confident Dentist Academy, visit

Image courtesy of: charles-rRWiVQzLm7k-unsplash.

There are currently no comments

Please log in to leave comments

If you are not yet a member you can register here: Member Registration

{% endif %}