Linking Learning Styles to Case Acceptance

What we have here... is failure… to communicate! Your patients may be listening, but are they really hearing you? Can they see your perspective? After all of your explanations, can your patients grasp the concepts that you’re attempting to convey? The saying goes that the meaning of your message is the response that you get back. We each receive and process information in quite complex ways. Thinking that everyone learns the same way you do can open the door to communication breakdowns. 

Marvin Minsky, a thought leader at MIT, states, “You don’t understand anything until you learn it in more than one way.” In order for your patients to recognize that the treatment they need is related to them personally, and to agree to that treatment, you need to engage with patients using their
style(s) of interaction and learning.

Dah-dah-dit. Dit-dah. Dit-dit-dah. That’s Morse code. Do you understand what I just said? Sometimes even when people speak plain English, their audience just doesn’t get it. If I’m communicating in Morse code, it’s plain enough to me, but most people won’t get it because they never learned that language and therefore can’t process information in that way. Learning relies on transmitting information in a meaningful way—meaningful to the recipient of that information. Tearing through learning theory and pulling out the very basics, there are three fundamental ways that people take in information:  seeing it, hearing it, or feeling it. 

Try this: Think about a barking dog.

What I just suggested are simply words on this page. You had to read them first. Then, some of you probably called up an image of a dog in your heads. You could see a dog, whether big, little, shaggy or shorn, in the act of barking. You’re visual learners.  Congratulations, you took in information and turned it into a picture in your head. You learn best with pictures, diagrams and vivid graphics, or when a speaker uses words that are graphically descriptive. That’s when information gets through to you.

Some of you reading my suggestion could hear the dog barking, a deep percussive bark or a light yipping sound. You could hear the vibrations of the bark when you were asked to think about a barking dog. You’re an auditory learner. You might be shown something visual, but until you take that and turn it into a verbal description, it won’t sink in. The good news is you’re pretty good at getting things to sound just right for yourself. 

Some of you reading those words could feel the dog’s bark and your response to it. If you felt the percussion of a deeper bark, you might have recoiled, even slightly, as you read the words.  You might have had a memory of a dog’s bark that annoyed or comforted you because, even very subtly, a sensation grew inside you as you thought about a barking dog. That you translate words into feelings makes you a kinesthetic learner.

Most people have a style that includes a combination of all three, with one style typically more predominant than the others. Recognizing your own style is a good start. But imposing your style onto your team and patients could create barriers. You build rapport and trust with your patients by creating bridges to their style of interaction, not yours. If you now know it’s important to deliver your message in a way that the recipient can grasp it, how can you and your team discover the dominant learning or interactive style of your patients?

Like crossing a street, you first have to stop, look and listen. Assess your patients for how they look, how they’re dressed and how they move. Listen for words they use as they speak with you.

A rule of thumb is that visual learners tend to pay attention to details in their dress—even if dressed casually, they’re neat. They care how they look. They might move more quickly than others as well. Because they’re visual, they’re taking in information all the time. Listen for the words they use. If they use descriptive, colorful words, you’ve got a visual learner in front of you. 

Auditory learners tend to move a smidgen slower than visual learners. Now, you don’t need to get out your “smidgen scale” to measure it, just listen to the words they use. Instead of talking about something being colorful or bright, they’ll describe how something “rings true” for them or that your treatment plan “sounds good.”

Kinesthetic learners will often look down as they process information. They’re feeling the impact of what they’re hearing or have just seen. They’ll let you know what feels right and use descriptive words that relate to their experience of feeling something—the plan may not feel right to them, the crowns make them happy, etc. 

So if you’ve really observed, and processed the information you’ve taken in with your own style, you’ll know what kind of learner your patient is. Then, simply match their primary learning style with your communication style, your verbal language, your body language, and the tools in your office.

A visual learner will get something out of being shown a model or watching a patient education program like Guru. An auditory learner will watch the program and listen to what sounds like it makes sense. A kinesthetic learner will wait to absorb the information and give you feedback as to how it feels. And the great news is that you can work with all three types of learning styles with Guru’s Stop, Draw and Teachâ„¢ technology. It’s a perfect tool to fully engage patients at each level of learning and information processing. 

Intraoral cameras also offer great opportunities for information exchange. What could be better for a visual learner than to enlarge the image of decay to a size larger than the patient’s head!  For the auditory learner, you need to be able to show your patients the pictures you’ve taken but you also need to describe the areas of concern in language to get the patient’s attention, using words like, “This area should be loud and clear to you.” There are even ways to use digital imagery to get through to the kinesthetic learners. By printing a picture and having the patient circle the problem area with a marker, you’ve actively engaged the patient!

Imagine using a shade guide with your patients. In the past, you might have simply selected the shade for reference for your charts. What an opportunity to engage the patient. Ask, “What colors do you see resonating as a match, and would you pick out and hold up the shade you would like to be?” That hits all three styles for the visual, auditory and kinesthetic types. It also allows you to segue into talking about whitening programs you might have. Boosting communication really can boost production in your practice.

I hope you can see that this information offers you a brighter future with your patients, harmonizing with your own presentations, so that your patients can really get a handle on everything you have to offer. (Did you catch that?) 

Dr. Wayne D. Pernell holds a doctorate in clinical psychology. He has been a full-time consultant with Pride Institute for over five years and boasts many very successful clients across the country. Prior to joining Pride, Dr. Pernell provided management consultation and executive coaching services for leaders and their teams in companies such as Charles Schwab, Whole Foods Market and AAA. For more information about the Pride Institute, visit or contact Dr. Pernell directly by phone at 800.925.2600 or by email at

Author: Wayne D. Pernell, PhD
Published: 07/20/2010
Contact Us