To be a successful clinical nurse or nurse leader, you need exceptional communication skills—and you need to be able to use them during high-stress situations.
Why Is Communication Important in Nursing?
Having good communication skills is essential to collaborating on teams with your fellow nurses and colleagues from other disciplines. It’s also important to patient-centered care.
Nurses who take the time to listen and understand the concerns of each of their patients are better prepared to address issues as they arise, resulting in better patient outcomes.
On the other hand, poor communication, or lack of communication, can lead to patients misunderstanding directions and failing to follow treatment protocols. It can also lead to workflow breakdowns on the team, resulting in medical errors. A report by the Joint Commission found that poor communication during patient transfers contributed to 80% of serious medical errors.
Additionally, patients who have established an open and secure dialogue with a nurse are more likely to disclose the true extent of their symptoms. According to the book Interpersonal Relationships: Professional Communication for Nurses by Arnold and Boggs, communication competency offers a primary means for establishing a trusting, collaborative relationship with patients and families. Interpersonal communication skills influence the quality of decisions made, as well as the level of patient motivation to follow treatment protocols and achieve desired clinical outcomes.
10 Effective Communication Skills for Nurses
For nurses, good communication means approaching every patient interaction with the intention to understand the patient’s concerns, experiences, and opinions. This includes using verbal and nonverbal communication skills, along with active listening and patient teach-back techniques. Below, we explore 10 communication skills that are important for nurses.
1. Verbal Communication
Excellent verbal communication is key. Aim to always speak with clarity, accuracy, and honesty. It’s also important to know your audience and speak appropriately according to the person’s age, culture, and level of health literacy. If you are feeling stressed out or frustrated, be aware of your tone of voice and don’t let these emotions leak into your patient interaction. You can:
- Encourage patients to communicate by asking open questions like, “Can you tell me a bit more about that?”
- Avoid condescending pet names like “honey” or “sweetie” and instead use the patient’s first name or name of choice.
- Speak in clear, complete sentences and avoid technical jargon.
2. Nonverbal Communication
Using elements of nonverbal communication—such as facial expressions, eye contact, body language, gestures, posture, and tone of voice—is also essential in creating rapport. Simply smiling can go a long way. You can also:
- Show interest in what the patient is saying by maintaining eye contact and nodding your head.
- Smile, but don’t stare.
- Sit down when you can, and lean forward to show you’re engaged.
- Use nonthreatening body language that conveys openness.
3. Active Listening
“Active listening” means listening in order to understand the other person’s experience. The highest and most effective form of listening, it requires complete attention and engagement. This skill is important not only for clinical nurses, but also for nurse executives as a tool for building trust and commitment with their staff. Active listening includes both verbal and nonverbal communication skills. For example:
- Nod your head, but never interrupt.
- Lean forward and maintain eye contact to let the person know you’re engaged.
- Include minimal verbal encouragement, such as “I understand,” and “go on.”
4. Written Communication
Written communication skills are also essential for effective nurse-to-nurse communication. As a nurse, you will be responsible for creating and updating patient records. It is critical that records are accurate and current so your patients can receive the best care possible. Also remember to protect patient confidentiality. Some tips:
- Make notes immediately following patient care so you do not forget anything.
- Write legibly and clearly, using simple language.
- Be sure to note accurate dates and times.
5. Presentation Skills
Effective presentation skills are most applicable during “handover”—when you are transferring patient care to another nurse. These skills will also help you demonstrate your knowledge and expertise clearly in a variety of workplace settings, such as presenting at conferences, participating in job interviews, giving case reports to physicians, and more. It’s a good idea to:
- Plan out your presentation and practice.
- Pay attention to both your verbal communication and body language.
- Add visuals to your presentation for a better explanation.
- Understand your audience and know what they want and need from the presentation.
6. Patient Education (Patient Teach-Back)
Nurses are in charge of most of the communication between the healthcare team and patients. This includes informing patients and family members of health conditions, diagnoses, treatment plans, and medication protocols. This skill is especially important for family nurse practitioners who work with patients and families to provide health and education counseling.
Patient teach-back is an effective communication strategy where providers ask patients to repeat the information back to them. This method improves patient understanding and encourages adherence to care instructions. Poor understanding of information can cause patients and their family members to feel anxious or become defensive. For example, you can say:
- “We’ve gone over a lot of information. Now I’d like you to repeat it back to me to make sure you remember everything.”
- “Can you repeat the instructions for taking this medicine back to me?”
- “Let’s review what we just discussed. Can you explain it to me in your own words?”
7. Making Personal Connections
It’s important to get to know the person behind the patient. Patient-centered relationships are critical in helping patients feel safe and comfortable. Creating meaningful connections with patients can improve outcomes and trust. Some ideas:
- Spend a couple of extra minutes every day with each patient getting to know them.
- Find out a fun fact about each patient.
- Show interest in their lives and share stories of your own.
It’s important for healthcare professionals to inspire trust in patients by listening actively and taking every complaint and concern seriously. Building trust takes time. Healthcare settings are scary for some patients. It’s important to make them feel as comfortable as possible.
Trust is something that nurse educators and leaders should also cultivate as they work to develop the next generation of nurses. To inspire trust, nurse leaders and educators should:
- Always tell the truth.
- Share information openly.
- Be willing to admit mistakes.
9. Cultural Awareness
You will likely work with people every day who come from a wide range of social, cultural, and educational backgrounds. Every patient and coworker is unique, and it’s important to be aware and sensitive. For example, gauge the patient’s fluency with English and grade your vocabulary accordingly or bring in a translator if necessary and possible. With trans and gender nonbinary patients, be sure to use their preferred name and pronoun.
Conveying compassion is an essential communication skill in healthcare. According to the Journal of Compassionate Healthcare, “studies show that compassion can assist in prompting fast recovery from acute illness, enhancing the management of chronic illness, and relieving anxiety.” You can deliver compassionate nursing care by putting yourself in the patient’s shoes and understanding their needs and expectations.
How to Overcome Communication Barriers in Nursing
Sometimes the message sent is not always received the way it was desired. Communication barriers in nursing result in weak patient-nurse interactions and relationships. To overcome these, we must first understand the types of communication barriers that nurses face. In the article “Communication and Language Needs,” Dawn Weaver identifies three common communication barriers in nursing: physical, social, and psychological.
The environment in which you communicate with a patient can make a huge difference in effective communication. Busy, loud, and distracting settings can increase patient stress. To create a safe and comfortable environment, try closing doors, opening blinds, and mitigating outside noises whenever you can.
Social barriers include differences in language, religion, culture, age, and customs. Understanding each patient’s cultural background can help nurses avoid prejudice and communicate clearly. It’s a good idea to tailor your communication strategies depending on the patient’s age, as well:
A 12-year-old and a 70-year-old will have very different ideas of what health and healthcare mean to them.
For many patients, a trip to the doctor is anxiety-inducing. Anxiety and stress are psychological barriers, as are dementia and other cognitive conditions. To help reduce their influence, it helps to take extra time to listen, empathize, and be supportive. Such psychosocial care has been proven to improve patient health outcomes and quality of life.
Nurses may also need to overcome their own psychological barriers. Speaking to patients and family members about death, disease, and other sensitive topics can be distressing. A study in the Journal of Advanced Nursing explored the fact that many nurses experience feelings of anxiety when discussing patient medical needs and conditions.
Get Started Developing Crucial Communication Skills Today
Learning these and other communication skills should be part of your education, whether you’re enrolled in undergraduate nursing school or a graduate nursing program. They are also easy to practice on the job, as you will get plenty of opportunities for communicating with patients and your colleagues. Put your favorite idea into practice today!
The University of St. Augustine for Health Sciences (USAHS) offers Master of Science in Nursing (MSN), Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP), and Post-Graduate Nursing Certificates designed for working nurses. Our degrees are offered online, with optional on-campus immersions* and an annual interprofessional trip abroad. Role specialties include Family Nurse Practitioner (FNP), Nurse Educator (MSN only), and Nurse Executive. The MSN has several options to accelerate your time to degree completion. Complete coursework when and where you want—and earn your advanced nursing degree while keeping your work and life in balance.
*The FNP track includes two required hands-on clinical intensives as part of the curriculum.
The Joint Commission, “Joint Commission Center for Transforming Healthcare Releases Targeted Solutions Tool for Hand-Off Communications,” August 2012, Volume 32, Issue 8, 2019.
Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, “Use the Teach-Back Method: Tool #5.” Last reviewed February 2015: https://www.ahrq.gov/health-literacy/quality-resources/tools/literacy-toolkit/healthlittoolkit2-tool5.html
Chen CS et al., “Nurses’ Perceptions of Psychosocial Care and Barriers to Its Provision: A Qualitative Study,”
J Nurs Res, Aug. 10, 2017 doi: 10.1097/jnr.0000000000000185.