The Importance of Actively Listening to Patients
By Katelynne Shepard, Contributor
Being a nurse is all about interacting with patients, and this can be a positive and a negative. Hearing your patients' life stories and getting to play a role in helping them get through one of the more difficult times of their lives can be very satisfying, but when a patient has trouble communicating or comes across as verbally hostile, it can be frustrating at best.
Learning how to practice active listening can help you navigate these types of scenarios and increase the lines of communication with all of your patients.
Understand that it may be difficult for patients to open up
As a nurse, you know that one of your best points of data is what the patient has to say about themselves. Knowing how they're feeling physically and emotionally, what their pain levels are and how they're tolerating medications or therapy are all critical to being able to plan an appropriate course of treatment. However, it may not always be easy for your patients to communicate openly.
Rabbi Shlomo Slatkin, M.S. and LCPC, is a counselor with The Marriage Restoration Project. Slatkin specializes in communication and says, "people hesitate to open up due to either not knowing how to articulate what they are feeling or because they fear the response."
In the health care setting, this could be an issue with the patient being too overwhelmed with pain to be able to communicate clearly or fearing being labeled a "problem" by the staff and not receiving quality care. It's also easy for patients to get embarrassed in settings where they have to tell intimate details of their health to complete strangers, which could make it more difficult for them to open up.
Practice active listening by repeating what you heard back to the patient
One of the primary components of the active listening technique is the echo, which means that you repeat back to the patient what you heard them say. It can be as simple as, "So what I hear you saying is that...." or "So it sounds like you..."
Repeating back to the patient helps you focus on what they're saying, not interrupt and be listening to understand instead of listening to respond. It also helps ensure that what you heard is what they meant. Sometimes patients don't have the vocabulary or are too emotional to clearly communicate their needs or issues, so it may take a few back-and-forths to get to actual understanding.
Remember that you don't always have to solve a problem
Nursing is a career that consists of a lot of fixing. A patient reports pain, you fix it with medication. A patient can't empty their bladder, you fix it with a catheter. But when it comes to active listening and communication, fixing isn't always the goal. Rabbi Slatkin says that "listeners make a mistake by trying to solve the problem or think they are helping the other. Listening is about...really being there for the other without offering suggestions." He goes on to say that the "best way to listen is to say nothing and to validate and empathize."
Many times your patients want to be heard. They want to know that someone has taken the time to talk to them, listen to their issues (even when it takes the form of complaints) and let them know that somebody cares.
"The value of listening to another person share their pain is to show them that you care about them and serve as a witness for them so that they feel heard and that their feelings matter," says Rabbi Slatkin. Even if the problem isn't fixable or you aren't the person who can do the fixing, you can be the person who listens, understands and validates.
Nursing is all about caring for patients' health, and this includes their emotional and mental well-being. Making a point to practice active listening techniques in your interactions with your patients can help you better understand their needs and how you can meet them or just give them the benefit of a friendly ear.
Practice more active listening on your next travel nursing assignment. Connect with a recruiter now.