Dentistry, Workplace Conflict and Courage


I have a rational fear of going to the dentist.

No, that’s not a typo – I believe my fear is completely rational.

I mean honestly, who likes having people stick their fists in their mouth and apply all sorts of heavy-duty machinery to one of the most sensitive areas of our body? Exactly!

After 18 years of avoiding the dentist, I was faced with a nasty predicament recently.

I’d had a niggle in a back tooth for a while.

It was a little annoying at first, but I convinced myself that if I just ignored it, the problem would go away.

That niggle turned into a nagging ache that kept me awake at night and played on my mind all day every day – and impacted the people closest to me (something about a bear with a sore head).

I knew I needed to face my fears … and step into some short-term discomfort, for long term benefit but I kept avoiding it.

I continued trying to convince myself that it wasn’t happening and applied all manner of self-medication and distraction techniques to avoid the reality of the problem.

All to no avail.

In the workplace, this approach to my niggling tooth is the same approach many people take when faced with a relationship tension or conflict.

We don’t want to have an uncomfortable or difficult conversation, so we continue trying to convince ourselves the problem doesn’t exist.

We ignore incessant, annoying issues and perhaps even self-medicate to stop our minds mulling over things late at night.

We carry out our duties, metaphorically covering our eyes and ears singing *la la la la* all the time hoping to avoid the reality of what we must face into.

The irony is that we tend to consume much more mental energy in avoiding these things than if we simply took forward steps to resolve them.

Courage is needed when facing into situations that we fear.

Nearly every leader I’ve worked with has expressed trepidation at having performance conversations with their staff or having a challenging conversation with a peer or their boss to address a point of tension.

Nearly every leader I’ve worked with will also say that when they have not taken proactive steps to resolve the issue – it has gotten worse.

Workplace tensions are like rotting teeth.

They may appear soothed at times but they’re still eroding away below the surface. (I’m also a little nauseous from that metaphor, sorry!)

One of the common causes of work-related stress is poor relationships.

One of the ways I help workplaces mitigate this potential psychological hazard is by coaching people in how to have difficult conversations. I give them a script to follow and coach them through the steps, however, ultimately it still involves an act of courage.

We are not born courageous, we choose it. It’s an action.

As I write this, I am one week post dental surgery with three stitches in my gum.

The day I went for my surgery I gave myself a severe pep talk.

I told myself to draw on all my reserves of courage and face into what I must.

To ‘embrace the gift of struggle’ as Dr Adam Fraser tells us to in his book, Strive.

I recited the word ‘courage’ as I walked from the car.

As I sat in the waiting room. As I was shown into the treatment room.

It helped.

Preparation is key.

What also helped was the preparation.

I planned out my approach and what was going to happen before the day of my surgery.

I planned out what I was going to say to the dentist and how I wanted to show up (as a mature woman not the out-of-control toddler that was raging within my body).

And I planned my diary and my energy as I knew the situation was going to be demanding on me emotionally… and physically, and I’d need some recovery time.

It helped.

Perhaps some people face into the dentist with ease. I’m not one of those people.

Similarly, perhaps you face into difficult conversations at work with ease. Or perhaps you don’t. 

Facing into our fears takes courage.

If you’ve been avoiding that difficult conversation, it’s time to draw on the supports around you, draw on your inner courage and take appropriate steps to prepare.

And, if all else fails – get onto that happy gas!

Tan x

P.S. My public service announcement: Dental anxiety and phobia – Better Health Channel

Tanya Heaney-Voogt

Director & Principal Consultant
MBA, ICFACC, MAHRI, Dip Mgt, Dip Coaching, Prosci® Certified Change Practitioner

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