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13 therapeutic communication techniques to improve healthcare in 2024

Last updated

22 July 2023


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Communication is an essential part of quality medical care. Nurses communicate with patients to learn how they're feeling, establish trust, and share treatment information. 

While dialogue is important, it's just one of many types of communication used in medical care. 

When communication goes beyond speech, nurses can show empathy, overcome communication barriers, and make patients more comfortable. 

Using proven therapeutic communication techniques allows medical personnel to contribute to quality care.

Here, you can learn exactly what therapeutic communication is, the different types, and how to develop your skills.

What is therapeutic communication?

Therapeutic communication is verbal and non-verbal communication that prioritizes patients’ physical, mental, and emotional well-being. It’s all the forms of communication nurses use to provide the best care for patients.

Medical professionals gather information from patients and share knowledge to better understand their condition and provide quality care. 

Nurses and other personnel provide essential support to establish trust. This puts patients at ease and improves the flow of communication. 

Therapeutic communication techniques are proven methods nurses use to establish a rapport with patients. They include body language, attitude, and even carefully timed silence.

What is the purpose of therapeutic communication techniques?

A medical environment can be stressful for patients. In many cases, they’re ill or experiencing acute physical distress. They may be frightened, semi-conscious, or unable to understand what's happening. 

Therapeutic communication techniques help medical professionals overcome communication barriers to share essential information and make patients as comfortable as possible.

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What are the benefits of using therapeutic communication?

Effective communication provides medical professionals with knowledge (symptoms, allergies, etc.) and enables them to share advice to improve the patient's condition. 

When nurses use therapeutic communication to build a relationship with patients, they gain these important benefits: 

  • Patients are more likely to participate in the decision-making process.

  • Doctors and nurses can reach more accurate diagnoses.

  • Patients are more likely to follow established treatment plans.

  • Patients and nurses have higher levels of satisfaction with interactions.

  • Patient experience higher patient satisfaction.

What is the goal of the therapeutic relationship?

The goal is to improve the physical and emotional well-being of the patient. It’s designed to make patients feel as comfortable as possible in an uncomfortable situation. 

Healthcare professionals need to establish effective communication and trust to treat patients successfully. When only 13% of Americans have a very positive view of the healthcare industry, doctor-patient relationships are more important than ever. 

The therapeutic relationship helps medical professionals build trust with patients to provide them with quality care and improved outcomes.

13 Therapeutic communication techniques

We have many ways to communicate beyond speaking. Medical professionals use body language, attitude, physical contact, and other methods with speech to provide therapeutic communication to patients. 

These are some of the most common therapeutic communication techniques:

Active listening

Rather than simply staying quiet while someone is speaking, actively listening requires paying careful attention and showing attentiveness. 

Active listening may include: 

  • Leaning forward

  • Making eye contact

  • Nodding or other affirmative body language

  • Words of understanding

  • Appropriate facial expressions

Showing empathy

Patients experience a variety of emotions in medical situations. 

Empathy is imagining yourself in someone else's position so you can get a better understanding of these feelings. When nurses show empathy, patients are more likely to accept the efforts and advice of medical professionals. 

Using touch

Physical touch can be a source of comfort and companionship. It provides patients with optimism, comfort, and they don’t feel so alone. Physical touch can be as simple as a hand on the shoulder or holding a hand.

It’s worth noting that physical touch isn’t right for some patients, so you should use it according to the patient's history and what you know about them. For example, touch may not be appropriate or well-received for those with a history of trauma.

Asking relevant questions

Accurate information is crucial to a successful diagnosis. Asking an occasional question can help a patient describe the time of an event, clarify symptoms, or recall additional details. 

Avoid overwhelming the patient with too many questions for the best results.

Sharing observations

Many clues to a patient's condition come in the form of actions. 

For instance, a nurse may notice a patient skipping meals, limiting activity, or looking more tired than usual. Sharing these observations can encourage patients to open up and describe their symptoms.

Offering company

Medical events, surgeries, and time in the hospital can be frightening and lonely. Nurses can offer their time to stay for lunch, linger for a conversation, or just provide companionship for a little while to provide unity and support. Showing patients they have value can boost their mood.

Using silence

At times, not speaking can convey more than an entire conversation. Brief pauses can allow patients to process their emotions or show you're reflecting on the full meaning of a statement. 

You can use silence to give a patient time to fully describe complex symptoms or consider what comes next in the conversation. When appropriate, it's best to let patients break the silence.


Medical conversations can quickly get complex for nurses and patients. It's easy for patients to get lost in medical jargon and for nurses to have limited details about a patient's symptoms. 

Asking for or providing a few added words for clarification can help nurses and patients avoid misunderstandings. For example, you may pause to describe a medical term or ask about a symptom. 

Using humor

Medical conditions usually bring about fear, pain, and other unpleasant feelings. A small dose of humor can help patients forget about their condition briefly and focus on something lighter. 

Laughter brings people together and can build a closer relationship between nurse and patient. 


Any medical situation requires an exchange of a significant amount of information. 

To ensure that everyone processes all information correctly, nurses frequently summarize categories of information. 

For example, a nurse may summarize a patient's description of an event to be sure they accurately understand the situation. Similarly, a nurse may summarize treatment instructions before a patient leaves to check they understand what to do at home.

Providing recognition, acknowledgment, and acceptance

Like active listening, this technique lets the patient know they've been heard. Instead of agreeing or disagreeing, nurses show acceptance with acknowledgment. This can be as simple as making eye contact and voicing understanding.


This technique requires the establishment of trust to avoid appearing as an attacker. Nurses may confront patients to help them break destructive routines or better understand their situation. 

For example, when a patient refuses a treatment they were previously interested in, a nurse may gently question their motives. 

Focusing the conversation

Patients can easily get off-topic when describing symptoms or an incident. This can be distracting and cause the omission of important details. Nurses can respectfully steer the conversation back on track with polite and relevant questions or comments. 

Which is the best type of communication technique?

You may have noticed that different therapeutic communication techniques apply to different situations. Technically, no single communication technique is best for all patients and situations. Therapeutic communication comes through careful listening and an accurate assessment of the situation. 

Communication barriers

Not all forms of communication are helpful in medical situations. Non-therapeutic communication involves actions more likely to agitate patients and act as a barrier to successful conversations. 

These are examples of non-therapeutic communication techniques to avoid:

Providing false reassurances

Vague reassurance that has nothing to do with sound medical advice can discourage patients from sharing more information. 

Phrases intended to reduce worry, like "everything will be fine" or "you're in good hands," can bring false hope or belittle a patient's feelings. As a result, the patient can feel that no further communication is needed. 

Stereotyping your patient

Stereotyping is responding to patients based on an assumed classification without considering them as individuals. This barrier to any interpersonal relationship is insulting to the patient. It will likely halt any further effective conversation.

Changing the subject

While patients need to maintain focus, abruptly changing the subject is rude and dismissive. It indicates that you're not interested in the patient as a person and have little empathy. 

Avoid rushing to change the subject, and take time to artfully steer in the right direction when the opportunity presents itself. 


Patients may complain about or criticize their level of care. You may feel like defending your actions or the policies of the facility. Instead, listen without criticism and see if you can solve an underlying issue. 

Therapeutic communication best practices 

While some elements of therapeutic communication can come naturally, others may not. 

The practice requires you to put the needs and feelings of others above your own and be understanding in the most challenging circumstances. 

Incorporating these actions into your care process can help you develop sound practices for excellent therapeutic communication with patients:

Observe the patient's body language

Unspoken cues can inform you about a patient's medical condition and how they feel about your interactions. Watching for signals of pain or distress can help you focus on underlying symptoms and care concerns to better meet the patient's needs.

Avoid time constraints

The patient should feel like they're your only focus. Avoid rushing or appearing stressed even if you're an hour behind schedule and the waiting room is full.

Recognize the patient's state of mind 

When people are in pain or severely ill, they may lash out or be easily upset. Remember that you're likely not the source of their distress, and show empathy for their condition and concerns.

Encourage communication

Even if you're working your way through a mandatory checklist, make sure to open a dialogue to address other concerns. Make eye contact and directly ask for the patient's input.

What are the five characteristics of therapeutic communication?

While there are many types of therapeutic communication, they all have an underlying similarity. These five characteristics are in each type of therapeutic communication:

  • Respect: You should respect and integrate a patient's values and beliefs into care without exception.

  • Time: Take the time to evaluate the patient's condition and concerns thoroughly.

  • Honesty: It's never appropriate to lie to a patient.

  • Patience: During stressful times, patients may be combative and non-communicative. Practice patience to get past these actions and to the root of the problem.

  • Compassion: Every patient in any condition deserves compassion and understanding.

How to develop the skills needed for therapeutic communication techniques

Understanding therapeutic communication techniques and implementing them can be two very different things. You must master certain strategies and skills to deliver therapeutic communication successfully. 

These tips can help you develop your therapeutic communication skills:

Recognize and improve your body language

Speaking nicely but rolling your eyes doesn't inspire confidence. While your "tells" might not be that obvious, your actions may disagree with your words. Become conscious of your body language to react appropriately to your patients and ensure they feel respected.

Cultivate empathy 

Really take time to stop and think about what each patient is experiencing. When you can put yourself in the shoes of others, you're more likely to provide the compassion and care they need in a challenging situation.

Understand your emotions and how to stifle them

Strong emotions quickly lead to disputes. Learn your triggers and focus only on what is in your patient's best interest to keep your emotions in check.

Forget about the clock

Time is the most important tool for effective communication. Avoid rushing and interruptions so you can give your patients the time they need to build trust in you.

For patients, a relationship with a medical professional must feel like more than a financial transaction. Learning and developing therapeutic communication techniques can help you slow down, put your professional self aside, and focus on your patient's human needs. As a result, you can provide improved care and better patient outcomes.

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