Good communication lies right at the heart of a nurse’s role. It’s essential to build understanding and trust with patients and their families and to collaborate successfully with them to improve health outcomes.

How Nurses can Improve their Communication Skills

Working on communication skills is often seen as a low priority when the focus is on clinical training, but it’s very much worth focusing on as it will make every other aspect of your job easier. This article looks at some of the specific ways you can sharpen your skills and explains how doing so will provide you with practical advantages.

Be a better listener

Communication is a two-way process. If you’re going to do it well, you have to start by making sure that you’re really listening to your patients and that they feel confident about that. Practice active listening, whereby you avoid any direct interruptions but use gestures and non-verbal sounds to make it clear that you’re paying attention. Use eye contact where possible (unless it makes the patient uncomfortable) or try holding the patient’s hand and squeezing it gently to show your understanding and concern. Try to resist the temptation to interrupt with your own ideas. If the patient stops talking but doesn’t give the impression of wanting to end the conversation, use open-ended questions to encourage further discussion. Make it clear that you find what you are hearing interesting and valuable and be quick to provide reassurance on any personal points the patient might fear are controversial or could provoke bias. Let them know that you are there for them regardless.

Build emotional rapport

The most important way to build trust and encourage patients to share with you—even if they’re dealing with health issues they find embarrassing or upsetting—is to build emotional rapport. At its simplest, this is done by reflecting the emotions patients are expressing back at them, but more calmly, showing concern when they’re upset and smiling when they’re happy. If they seem open to it, gentle humor can help to lift the mood. You can test the waters by making little jokes at your own expense. Try to use your natural warmth to make patients feel valued and reassured and recognize that there are times when just being there to sit with somebody is more important than any kind of conversation at all, which is particularly important for older patients.

The nursing shortage, combined with an aging population, has highlighted the significance of establishing a connection and trust with elderly patients. For older patients, who can feel fatigued due to illness or be socially isolated, the conversation can be especially challenging. This makes the human connection that a nurse can offer all the more valuable. Aspiring nurses can complete a nursing program, such as the one provided by Saint Joseph’s College of Maine, to acquire the skills needed to build that rapport with older patients and provide the compassionate care they often require.

Show respect

When people need support from nurses, they are often feeling low, and this can damage their confidence. It’s part of your job to build that backup. This is why it is important that you don’t add to the negative pressures in their lives. Show them that you respect them for who they are, whether you’re talking to a child who is worried about being patronized and not taken seriously or a psychiatric patient who has an unusual perspective to share. Bear in mind that you don’t have to agree with what patients tell you in order to accept that it’s what they believe and it matters. If, for instance, a patient believes that her chronic pain is caused by neighbors who are working against her, you should remember that the pain itself is real and that she deserves sympathy. Rather than telling her outright that she’s wrong about the cause, invite her to think about it in more depth and try to help her come to a more rational conclusion for herself.

Empower your patients

One of the most distressing things about needing medical treatment is the feeling that one doesn’t have full control over one’s own life. This can have damaging effects on mental health even when the underlying cause is purely physical, but you can help your patients by encouraging them to take control in small ways. Let them know when they’re doing things well, not with compliments, which can feel patronizing, but simply by acknowledging it and letting them know that you appreciate patients taking responsibility for their health. Encourage them to participate in making decisions about treatment and take ownership of those decisions so they feel they are steering their own way through a course of treatment, with you and their doctors as guides. Resist the temptation to do everything for them even if they’re weak but encourage them to be assertive about their needs.

Confirm important details

Relaxed, meandering conversations are better for most patients’ emotional well-being, but detailed, highly focused conversations are better for gleaning important information that can help you manage treatment appropriately or identify new symptoms. Finding the right balance can be tricky. If you’re in this position, don’t be shy about letting patients know when you need a bit more clarity. Tell them that you’re not sure how well you understood them—this framing makes it clear that any fault lies with you and not with them. Try summing up the conversations you’ve had and asking them if you’ve got it right.


Developing your communication skills in this way will enable you to get much more useful information out of your day-to-day interactions with patients as well as help build that vital bond of trust. You can also use these skills with their family members to help provide reassurance and encourage the provision of the sort of support that the patient really needs. You’ll find that, as a result, your efforts to develop a partnership around care are much more effective and your patients will feel more confident and better able to take responsibility for optimizing their health.