A nurse puts a hand on a patient’s shoulder.
A nurse puts a hand on a patient’s shoulder.

The 5 Best Communication Skills for Nurse Leaders

Communication is the way we make sense of our world, express our needs and achieve mutual understanding. In healthcare, communication supports safety, accuracy and engagement. For patients, family members, nurses, doctors and health care administrators, excellent nurse communication skills are pivotal to efficient, reliable and compassionate healthcare.

Nurse leaders can improve patient outcomes by developing their communication techniques through an advanced education, such as a Doctor of Nursing Practice program.

The Nurse Leader’s Role in Nurse Communication Skills

An effective nurse leader is devoted to providing the best care and strives to advance the nursing profession. Leadership in nursing is demonstrated in nurses who lead by example and positively influence others.

The Importance of Transactional and Transformational Nurse Leadership

The typical nurse leader role is a dual one: It is both transactional (managing by setting goals and offering rewards) and transformational (motivating employees to be independent and innovative).

Staff scheduling, auditing and payroll are some of the many transactional tasks nurse leaders oversee, according to a recent Nursing Management article. These activities keep health care organizations up and running. 

On the other hand, creating new staffing models, improving metrics and strengthening employee engagement are transformational nursing tasks. These activities encourage nurses to excel and help patients thrive.

Transformational nursing leadership, especially, can build strong nursing teams by:

  • Promoting teamwork
  • Resolving conflict 
  • Relieving stress
  • Reducing errors

Nurse Communication Skills and the Nurse Leader 

The connection between good communication and effective nurse leadership is well documented. Nurse leaders who intentionally develop their nursing communication skills can have a significant influence on the job satisfaction of the staff they supervise. When nurse leaders communicate with respect, their teams are inspired and motivated, which can lead to higher-quality patient care and better patient outcomes.

It often falls to nurse leaders to forge meaningful working relationships to improve healthcare in busy and impersonal clinical settings. In large part, that effort includes maintaining superior nursing communication skills, including the ability to:

  • Communicate openly
  • Listen respectfully
  • Articulate expectations clearly
  • Offer constructive feedback
  • Share relevant information

A nurse leader quoted in Healthcare says: “I think the biggest thing I work on every day is communication. Trying to keep people all together on the same page is the biggest thing I do.”

When nurse leaders communicate effectively, they empower their organizations to further the noble mission of saving lives and safeguarding communities. 

5 Key Nursing Communication Skills

Communication plays a crucial role in health care organizations and their ability to deliver quality care. The following toolbox of nursing communication skills can equip nurse leaders and their teams to improve communication in clinical settings.

For any nurse communication skill, cross-cultural sensitivity is an essential component. “The ideas people have about health, the languages they use, the health literacy skills they have, and the context in which they communicate about health reflect their cultures,” the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes.

1. Speaking

What nurses say matters. Every day, nurses share information with patients about health conditions, diagnoses and treatment plans. To receive these vital messages constructively, patients as well as nurses must understand them clearly. When speaking directly to patients, nurses should:

  • Speak in a caring, professional tone appropriate to the situation
  • Enunciate clearly
  • Use complete sentences
  • Use correct grammar
  • Avoid obscure scientific terms and medical jargon
  • Use a moderate speed but avoid speaking too slowly to someone whose first language isn’t your own
  • Ask open-ended questions that can’t be answered with merely yes or no
  • Give information in small chunks, pausing to check for understanding or give reassurance
  • Speak the patient’s preferred language or engage the help of an interpreter
  • Be kind

2. Active Listening

People have different communication styles, so some people may express themselves more clearly or concisely than others. Patients in clinical settings may be fearful, which can cause them either to talk nervously or clam up. To effectively treat health issues and to empathize with each individual’s unique situations, nurses must actively listen to understand their experiences. 

Active listening can:

  • Reduce patient anxiety
  • Encourage patients and families to share their deepest concerns
  • Avoid misunderstandings

Nurses can use the following active listening techniques when interacting with patients, families, other nurses and doctors: 

  • Don’t judge
  • Don’t multitask
  • Commit in advance to being fully present
  • Notice the speaker’s body language
  • Play back the speaker’s words mentally
  • Rephrase the speaker’s main points to them
  • Ask clarifying questions
  • Listen with cultural sensitivity
    • Avoid assumptions about the meanings of certain words or expressions
    • Focus carefully to understand accents and speech patterns
    • Allow the speaker to pause and plan what to say when the language is not their first one
    • Use short exchanges rather than speaking in long monologues

3. Nonverbal Communication

Nonverbal communications are the messages people send without words. Nonverbal communication includes how people position themselves physically in relation to their conversational partners, whether they establish or avoid eye contact and other silent signals that serve to reinforce spoken language.

Helpful nonverbal nurse communication skills include:

  • Maintaining consistent eye contact when speaking or listening if it is culturally appropriate 
  • Having a relaxed and appropriate facial expression 
  • Staying still and attentive when listening
  • Sitting or crouching to stay at the same level as your conversational partner
  • Nodding your head to show you are following the speaker’s points
  • Leaning forward and facing your conversational partner
  • Using appropriate touch (a handshake, a pat on the shoulder) if you are certain doing so respects the other person’s boundaries
  • Using mutually understood gestures, such as the “thumbs up” sign, after ensuring they are culturally appropriate
  • Noticing the other person’s body language and facial expressions
  • Being aware of cultural differences in nonverbal communication
    • In some cultures, it’s customary for speakers to avoid eye contact while speaking
    • Some cultures pause briefly out of respect when a speaker finishes talking

In healthcare, skilled communicators ensure their nonverbal and spoken messages match. If there’s a disconnect between the two — for example, a nurse says they empathize but continually glances at their phone — the listener is likely to focus on the nonverbal message. 

Nonverbal nursing communication skills are especially important when nurses interact with patients who may have hearing or attention deficits. When nurses emphasize nonverbal cues when speaking, listeners can understand information better and feel respected.

4. Writing

Writing is an important communication skill for nurses to utilize. They write notes to document patient interactions, create and modify written health records, compose answers to questions on patient portals and record written information to share with doctors or other nurses. 

Written communication is key because clear documentation supports patients’ well being and an organization’s reputation for integrity. In fact, health care documentation such as written health records are significant enough that courts consider them legal documents.

What makes written communication so important in a clinical setting? First, written medical records protect patients and institutions by giving an accurate history of care. In addition, successful education about treatment depends on accurate and clear written instructions. Finally, a nurse’s written notes can influence health insurance decisions that affect patients’ pocketbooks and an organization’s bottom line. 

Nursing best practice for written communication includes:

  • Use universally accepted abbreviations and terminology
  • Document a patients’ records accurately and fully
  • Use concise, easy to understand language
  • Keep handwriting legible
  • Take notes immediately after seeing a patient to avoid forgetting information
  • Do not use personal shorthand, as it can be misunderstood
  • Ensure that written notes and instructions stand alone and don’t require a spoken explanation
  • Follow up spoken discussions with a summarizing email, especially when communicating cross culturally
  • Engage the services of a professional translator when communicating in writing in a language that is not your first language

5. Compassion

Perhaps the most significant contributor to the health and well-being of patients, nurses and nurse leaders alike is the skill of compassionate communication. All people need empathy and emotional support, including patients, families and the health professionals who serve them. 

People receiving healthcare are vulnerable. A nurse’s kindness conveyed through compassionate nurse communication skills can make all the difference between a positive patient experience and a negative one. 

All other nurse communication skills, including speaking, active listening, nonverbal communication and writing, effectively support compassionate communication.

Benefits of compassionate communication include:

  • Patients feel that nurses understand their concerns
  • Patients can focus on healing and recovery
  • Helps patients relax before undergoing medical procedures
  • Helps establish trust between patients and nurses

Cultural sensitivity helps nurses communicate empathetically across cultures. Culturally competent compassion in health care delivery, according to a 2021 article in the Journal of Holistic Nursing, not only improves the quality of healthcare but also mitigates social inequality and protects human rights.

Different cultures have different conceptions of what it means to communicate with compassion, according to Psychology Today. For example, in the United States, a slightly smiling facial expression is considered empathetic, while in Germany, a distressed facial expression conveys compassion.

Nurses can exhibit compassionate communication toward patients and coworkers in the following ways:

  • Recognize an emotional need exists and learn how to respond to it based on the uniqueness of each individual
  • Get to know some personal details about each patient
  • Use positive nonverbal cues and gestures, such as smiling and active listening
  • Encourage people to talk openly and candidly, without interruption
  • Ask for feedback with open-ended questions such as “How do you feel about that?”
  • Encourage support staff to engage in compassionate communication with patients
  • Role play with nurse teams to practice interpersonal and observational skills
  • Be honest when answering patients’ questions about their health
  • Develop the ability to detect when patients feel frustration or anxiety before it escalates
  • Stay culturally competent to understand social and personal needs that may differ from your own

Become an Empowered Nurse Leader 

Clear, caring and culturally sensitive nurse communication skills empower nurse leaders to serve patients with empathy and effect positive change in healthcare. Discover how Walsh University’s Online Doctor of Nursing Practice programs can equip you with expert nurse communication skills. Take your health care career to a new level while supporting positive patient outcomes with an advanced education from Walsh.

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