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What is effective communication in nursing?

Last updated

27 June 2023


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Communication is important in all professions, but effective communication in nursing is essential. There are few areas more important to have good written and oral communication skills than that of healthcare.

Working and communicating with patients, care teams, and family members is a crucial role for nurses and can have a profound effect on the patient experience.

Why is communication important in nursing?

Good communication skills in nursing are essential to all aspects of the job. They are important not only crucial for the patient but also for the nurse and their care team.

Nearly every aspect of nursing and healthcare requires communication, including prevention, treatment, and education. Communication in nursing is never one way, but rather a collaboration of ideas, questions, and instructions.

Good communication with patients leads to trust, often prompting the patient to open up more to a nurse who listens and tries to understand the patient's experience. This can result in a more thorough, thoughtful assessment. With these open communication lines, patients are more likely to follow directions more closely, resulting in fewer medical errors.

Learning to communicate effectively with patients can require skill, patience, and practice.  Sometimes communication is non-verbal and can be achieved through a knowing look, comforting gestures, or a nod. A simple smile can let the patient know you’re listening with compassion. And since communication works in both directions, a nurse's listening skills are vital.

Communicating with family members is another important part of nursing. This can be educational, instructional, or questioning. This type of communication is key for:

  • Discharge instructions,

  • Medication effects

  • Follow-up appointments

  • Home healthcare needs

The information can sometimes be complex and confusing, so written communication is often needed as a reminder.

Nurses must be able to communicate in difficult situations in a way that is understandable by the patient and their family members. Injuries and illnesses are often accompanied by stressful reactions such as grief, confusion, or fear. Nurses can calm the situation by remaining composed and reassuring.

Patient care cannot be performed adequately without communication with fellow nurses, doctors, and other staff members who are part of the patient’s care team. Good communication is not only key to successful treatment results but can also increase morale and job satisfaction, resulting in lower turnover and workplace stress.

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Benefits of effective communication in nursing

We’ve looked at some general benefits of effective communication; now let’s expand on how it helps the patient and their care. Communicating is defined as sharing or exchanging information, news, or ideas. This exchange is what sets a patient’s care apart from nurses who do not effectively communicate.

Usually, nurses are the first caregivers to see a patient. They gather information, ask questions, and communicate with the patient or family member as a first step to providing care. An open, compassionate nurse who communicates well with the patient can help determine the optimal path for care and treatment. A nurse’s effective communication can set the roadmap for how the patient recovers and enable them to better understand their health.

Nurses who are good communicators can engage with patients to determine their emotional state as well as other issues affecting their overall health. These could be financial issues, homelessness, food insecurity, or other factors that could negatively affect the patient’s concept of treatment and recovery.

Nurses who are great communicators can also identify special needs for patients that may otherwise not be noted. This could include:

  • Special dietary needs

  • Transportation issues

  • Religious beliefs

Sometimes nurses can answer questions or explain instructions, diagnoses, or medications that a patient may not understand but may not feel comfortable asking a doctor or other professional. Nurses are also patient advocates, allowing them to make their own informed decisions by identifying their worries and minimizing their fears.

How can communication affect the health of nurses?

Many nurses are working extended shifts without adequate time off because of staff shortages or illness. They are often working on the front line in stressful and even dangerous conditions.  This can take a toll on their mental and physical health, leading to burnout and exhaustion.

Because nurses are attuned to the needs of others, sometimes they put their well-being at risk. By communicating with co-workers, supervisors, family, or friends, some of these conditions may be prevented.

What are the 4 Cs of communication in nursing?

The 4 Cs of communication in nursing are the skills needed to be successful communicators in nearly any industry:

  • Clear

  • Concise 

  • Correct

  • Complete

The four Cs of communication improve the interactions between the nurse, other medical personnel, and patients.

By communicating clearly and concisely with complete and correct information, the communication process becomes easier and quicker, and leads to fewer errors. This results in saved time and more efficient, effective patient care.

What are the most effective communication skills for nurses?

To offer the best patient care, nurses must employ several communication skills to better understand the patient's concerns and more effectively address each situation.

No two patients will communicate in the same way, so by mastering the following skills, nurses will improve their communication skills and broaden their reach.

Verbal communication

Verbal communication tops the list since it is key to receiving and providing information.  Communication should be adjusted to the patient's age, culture, or understanding of medical procedures or terms.

Always speak clearly and honestly, being cautious to use only information that is accurate without too much technical jargon. Use a friendly, conversational tone, and don’t speak too quietly, especially when dealing with elderly patients who may have hearing difficulties. Speaking too softly or too loudly can negatively impact communication with patients.

Nonverbal communication

Your facial expressions can be welcoming and put a patient at ease. Make eye content and use body language that implies engagement and interest. Smile and show interest by nodding or making other gestures.

Be mindful of gestures or words that may be offensive to other cultures or religions.

Active listening

When your patient is talking, pay attention and stay engaged. This will build trust and rapport.  Encourage them to go into greater detail and lean forward, showing you want to actively hear all they have to say.

Use both verbal and nonverbal skills, and never be judgemental or condescending.

Written communication

Accuracy in the medical profession is paramount. Keeping precise, detailed written records is essential to patient care and other medical personnel. Your written information should be accurate and timely but remain confidential, with access only allowed to those authorized.

Make sure you write clearly and legibly, using correct spelling and grammar. All documentation should be completed with date and time stamps.

Presentation skills

Presentation skills used in nursing include the hand-off of a patient to another healthcare worker or nurse or another facility. Be concise and accurate in the information you present and keep the presentation factual and to the point.

Patient education (patient teach-back) 

An example of patient teach-back is when a nurse reads instructions to a patient or family member and asks them to repeat it back to them to be sure they heard it correctly.

Other examples of patient teach-back are:

  • Explaining or demonstrating wound care

  • Giving clear instructions on medication dosages and schedule

  • Providing information about how to care for their injury or illness when at home

Patient teach-back is especially important if the area is loud, chaotic, or stressful. By asking that they repeat it back, you are ensuring they heard it correctly.

Making personal connections

Probably one of the most important communication skills is connecting with patients on a personal level. This makes them feel more comfortable and safe in a stressful or painful situation.

It doesn't take long to find a common thread such as where you’re from, or if you have children or a favorite food.


Trust is a trait that must be earned and is important in nursing. By communicating openly and honestly, by treating patients with respect and compassion, and by being an active listener, your patient will begin to trust you as a person and a nurse.

Cultural awareness

You need to be aware of and respect differences in culture, remaining neutral and avoiding bias. This is not only important when dealing with patients but also with co-workers and family members.


Showing compassion is essential in the healthcare industry. Nurses who are compassionate with their patients have found those with acute illnesses can better manage the pain or are more successful in treatment protocols for chronic illnesses.

A compassionate, human connection has the power to:

  • Decrease pain

  • Lower blood pressure

  • Lessen anxiety

  • Promote healing by boosting the immune system

How to overcome communication barriers in nursing

Communication in any field is not always easy. In nursing, communication can be even more difficult but is essential for the treatment of your patients.

Nurses are on the front line, often dealing with the patient before they see any other medical professional. To put the patient at ease, gain their trust and cooperation, and assess a sometimes difficult situation, nurses must overcome some difficult communication barriers. 

Special care and training can help overcome some of the most common barriers.

Physical barriers

Speaking to patients in busy areas or situations of chaotic joy or emotional stress can make it difficult to communicate effectively. Nurses must take charge of the situation by closing doors or separating themselves and the patient from other distractions.

Social barriers

Language barriers, cultural differences, and even age can cause barriers to communicating.

Enlist the help of an interpreter if there is a language barrier and adjust your communication to suit the patient’s age.

Psychological barriers

Some patients find hospitals or doctor's offices scary and unpleasant. Cognitive illnesses, stressful situations, or fear of the unknown are all psychological barriers that can be difficult to overcome.

Use extra time and compassion for these situations, and attempt to gain the patient's trust and relieve their stress.

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