5 Essential Communication Skills for Nurses

communication skills for nurses

Hospitals are scary for patients. They can be even more frightening for their loved ones.

Critical patients are rushed between departments without opportunities to explain what’s happening. Others are often left waiting to be seen, dwelling on everything that might go wrong.

But whatever the situation, the intervention of a compassionate, skilled nurse (so, basically all of them) can be a light in the darkness.

That’s why communication skills for nurses are essential.

Critically, nurses are often the first to see a patient or the only medical professional with the time and ability to explain what’s happening to them and their families carefully.

If you’re a nurse, work in patient care or want to start your career in healthcare, read our guide to learn five of the most essential communication skills you need to ensure positive patient outcomes.

(And nurses –qualified and aspiring – thank you for everything you do. You really are amazing.)

Why is Communication Important in Nursing?

Good communication skills are essential for nurses because caring for a patient requires collaboration between you, other medical professionals and the patient.

When communication breaks down, medical errors are more likely to happen and patients may misunderstand treatment protocols or the severity of their conditions. This can significantly affect a patient’s chances of recovery.

And as mentioned, hospitals can be pretty terrifying for patients and their loved ones. Knowing how to communicate with compassion helps put patients and their families at ease, making it more likely they’ll be honest and responsive to any instructions during the assessment phase. Not to mention, they’ll also be less anxious during any treatments. All of these conditions are vital contributors to positive patient outcomes.

Common Barriers to Communication

Before we look at developing specific communication skills, it’s helpful to consider the common barriers to communication you’ll likely encounter in a clinical setting.

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Emotional Barriers

Nurses often have to deliver bad news to their patients or their loved ones, which can put them in a difficult position. No one wants to cause someone to be upset or feel like they’re making a painful situation worse. Talking candidly with patients can be incredibly challenging when you’re worried you’ll trigger a strong emotional response.

With all that being said, it’s essential to remember that honest, clear communication is crucial in delivering positive outcomes for patients.

Lack of Confidence in Training

This barrier is strongly linked to the one above. If you lack experience or sufficient training, difficult conversations can seem daunting.

Let your supervisor know if you feel your skills aren’t strong enough. They can either support you at the moment or arrange further training to help give you the confidence to handle challenging conversations independently.

Environmental Challenges

Hospitals are busy, making finding an appropriate setting for conversations with patients or their loved ones difficult. A lack of privacy or time, often combined with excessive noise or distractions, can frustrate communication.

Try to create as intimate a space as possible, and if you’re rushed, make sure you’re doing everything you can to let patients know a lack of time doesn’t equal a lack of care (more on this later).

Social Barriers

You will treat an incredible array of patients throughout your career – ages, races, religions, backgrounds and attitudes will vary. These traits can affect your ability to communicate effectively.

Be mindful of your patients’ personalities and cultural backgrounds and adjust your communication strategies accordingly.

The Essential Communication Skills

Awareness of communication barriers helps, but nurses must develop practical communication skills to help patients get the best possible outcomes.

Effective Communication Skills for Nurses

1 – Nonverbal Communication

Be mindful of your non-verbal communication. Your facial expression, level of eye contact, tone of voice, posture and gestures affect your relationship with patients.

It’s imperative to get your non-verbal communication right when meeting a patient for the first time. A warm smile can help put a patient at ease and let them know you’re on their side, helping to reduce anxiety levels and encourage patients to open up.

Your choice of body language also affects how your patients perceive you. One study has suggested that sitting down when talking with a patient positively affects their impression of you.

2 – Active Listening

Active listening helps you pick up on any crucial clinical details your patients may share and makes them feel heard, even if you only have limited time to speak to them.

However, listening with total concentration is a tricky skill to master. Here are a few steps you should follow when your patient’s talking:

  • Don’t interrupt or attempt to finish any of the patient’s statements
  • Always maintain a healthy level of eye contact and nod your head
  • Keep your body positioned towards your patient
  • Avoid looking away or at any devices or paperwork you might have with you
  • Focus on what’s being said, not how you’ll reply
  • Try to use some of the patient’s own words in your response when it’s the right time to speak

3 – Accuracy

Always strive for clarity and speak in clear sentences free of jargon or medical terminology. Your patients won’t have the knowledge and training you do, so don’t use any terms or phrases you’re not entirely sure they understand. You might feel this slows any communication down. Still, the goal of any exchange should be to relay information accurately, not quickly.

It would help if you carried this sensibility to written communication, particularly when preparing hand-off notes or updating your patient’s medical records. When communicating with colleagues, using recognised medical shorthand or terminology is acceptable. But still focus on making any notes grammatically accurate, detailed and written in full.

4 – Check Understanding

When relaying complex information, you must check your patient’s understanding (regardless of how clearly you feel you delivered it.)

You can use the patient teach-back strategy to achieve this. It’s a straightforward way to check your patient’s understanding, making it more likely they’ll follow any care instructions. All you need to do is ask your patient to repeat any instructions you’ve given them in their own words.

5 – Develop Trust

See your patient as more than a case and try to get a sense of their life outside the hospital. Patient-centred care helps people feel relaxed and safe when undergoing treatment or spending time in the hospital away from loved ones or the comforts of home.

You can ask your patients about their life at home or their work. Or try to find out an interesting fact about them. Whatever you end up talking about, try to ask at least one non-clinical question every day to build rapport.

Communication with Colleagues

Most of the advice has been focused on communication with patients. However, good communication skills with colleagues are also critical to ensure positive patient outcomes.

Read our previous blog about communication techniques to help you in the workplace.

Developing Communication Skills

Following the advice in this guide should help you develop effective communication skills for nurses. However, dedicated training courses give you more detailed instructions. They are one of the best ways to build confidence in your communication skills.

And since you’re likely a busy nurse working at a hospital with limited budgets, online training is often the best option. It’s more affordable than in-person training and lets you access course materials when you want.

Our online Communication Skills Training helps you develop your ability to actively listen, use body language to support your conversations and identify common barriers to communication. These skills will help you collaborate with your team and build relationships with your patient and their loved ones, helping you deliver the best possible outcome for those in your care.

About the author(s)

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Jonathan Goby
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