As a nurse, being able to communicate well with your patients is key. Talking with them enables you to find out what they need, if they are in pain, or if a treatment doesn’t seem to be working. Improving communication can also help create a culture of safety—this year’s National Nurses Week theme—and reduce the risk of medication errors.

Sometimes, you have patients with whom it’s really easy to communicate. But there are many other times when you don’t. So what can you do in those instances? We asked some experts for tips to make communicating with your patients easier.

Start by Listening

One of the best ways to connect well with your patients is to really listen. Perhaps this seems trite—how else could you communicate without listening? —but in the real world, nurses are often trying to do many tasks at once and listening, truly listening, can fall by the wayside.

“Listening skills are critical when trying to assess patient personalities or any patient aspects for that matter,” says Karyn Buxman, RN, MSN, a neurohumorist and founder of LevityWorks.com. “Give plenty of time for the patient to answer questions. Ask open-ended questions—not questions that can merely be answered with a Yes or No. Ask ‘Can you tell me a little more about that?’ and then be still. Don’t give the impression of being in a rush—even though you probably are!” 

Buxman explains that it’s important to give patients cues that you are interested in what they are saying. Nodding, smiling, and making eye contact lets them know that you’re listening.

Although nurses are often tremendously busy, it’s crucial for them to carve out time to get to know their patients. “It’s important for nurses to step out of the constant busyness and take a meaningful pause in order to get to know their patients,” says Liz Bywater, PhD, leadership expert, speaker, and author of the upcoming book Slow Down to Speed Up: Harnessing the Power of Pausing to Improve Leadership, Advance Your Career, and Get Things Done. “Nurses should carve out time to introduce themselves and let the patients know they’re there to help. They should explain the role they play in the patients’ care and provide the hours they’ll be working.”

Bywater adds that nurses should ask new patients if they have any immediate or pressing questions and provide answers as soon as possible.

Put Patients at Ease

There are many tactics nurses can use to put their patients at ease—getting them to relax and listen to you will greatly help your communication.

Buxman says to slow down, be present, and again, make eye contact. “So often when we multitask, we feel like we are still able to pay attention,” she explains. “But it is not our perception that is important.” What is important is the perception of the patients or their family members. Buxman gives a tip for knowing if you connected with your patients: “Ask yourself, ‘What color were their eyes?’ If you can’t answer that question, then you weren’t really giving them your full attention.”

Slowing down is also something Bywater suggests. It may seem tough to do, but it can be key in connecting with your patients. “Don’t stare at a monitor or adjust an IV when patients are trying to get your attention about something important,” Bywater explains. “As busy as nurses are, it can be difficult to pause long enough to fully attend to the patients’ communications, both verbal and nonverbal. But there’s a great deal to be learned in paying attention.” She says that being alert can help you notice warning signs or potential danger with the patients’ conditions.

Dealing with Angry Patients

What do you do if you have angry patients who are being nasty or belligerent? Bywater says that you want to attempt to emotionally de-escalate these situations. “Stay calm and composed. Listen to what the patients have to say. Don’t take it personally. Don’t be defensive,” suggests Bywater. “Don’t try to talk the patient out of being angry, and don’t try to convince him that he’s wrong. Explain that you understand that he is upset. Convey that you’d like to hear what’s bothering him. Offer to help—and follow through on that promise.”

According to Buxman, often what’s at the root of patients’ anger is fear. As a result, do everything you can to be compassionate and direct. “Do your best to make them feel heard. Assess the situation to see if you can diminish what might be causing their fear. Keep your voice steady. Don’t get into a shouting match. Don’t allow yourself to get sucked into a battle. Take your time. Breathe,” she says.

Patients Who Don’t Listen

Suppose you have a few patients who just won’t listen? You’re listening to them and helping as best you can, but they refuse to listen to what you’re saying—and what you’re telling them can affect their health.

First, says Buxman, ask yourself why the patient isn’t listening. “Are they fearful, angry, in pain, or worried? It’s difficult for anyone to really pay attention when in a state of stress,” she says. Ask if there is anything that can be done to reduce the patient’s stress. She also suggests tapping into the patient via his or her emotions. “Connect through the use of humor or a story. If you can use anecdotes to make the situation more personal rather than hypothetical, the patient is more likely to connect with the instructions.”

Buxman also says to try and figure out what kind of learners the patients are. Will they respond better to something visual rather than auditory? “People don’t remember data nearly as well as they remember stories, examples, and visuals,” says Buxman. For example, when a dietician she knows couldn’t get across to a non-compliant diabetic patient that he should only be having half a fruit for his meal choice, she took a picture of a banana, held it in front of him, and ripped it in half. “At first, the patient was startled, but then he began to laugh and was able to get the point.”

“Never forget that patients and families are often dealing with physical and emotional overwhelm,” says Bywater. “They may be scared, confused, or angry—and sometimes they will take that out on you, their nurse. Try to keep some emotional distance from the negativity; don’t take it personally, and remember why you chose nursing as a career. That should help you stay centered, calm, and patient-focused—all of which are important for great patient communication.”

Michele Wojciechowski

Michele Wojciechowski is an award-winning writer and author of the humor book Next Time I Move, They’ll Carry Me Out in a Box.

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