8 effective communication strategies for nurses

18th October 2022
Nurse high fiving her young patient
Nurse high fiving her young patient
Nurse high fiving her young patient

Qualifying as a registered nurse in Australia requires several years of higher education. A nurse’s broad knowledge base then grows with every year of professional experience. Nurses play an integral role in the provision of quality health care and their expertise is highly valued across the community. However, this collective knowledge and experience rely on effective communication.

The importance of verbal communication strategies in nursing

Nurses need to share important information with a multidisciplinary team that is responsible for the care of their patients. Additionally, nurses need to communicate sensitively with patients and families to establish connections, build trust and deliver optimal health outcomes.

A nurse with high-level soft skills, including communication, brings much-valued sensitivity, dedication and empathy to individualised nursing care. Prospective nursing students interested in improving these communication skills should consider how a postgraduate degree in nursing can benefit them. There are many ways nurses can modify their communication style to suit the situation and the needs of their patients. Here are some strategies to achieve more effective communication for nurses.

1. Using clear language for CALD and older patients

Nurses may need to allocate additional time to explain procedures or medications to older patients or those from culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) backgrounds. Clear, plain language is often necessary for this. Complicated medical terminology can be confusing to the average person, but may be overwhelming to a patient who speaks English as a second language. Nurses should use simple and non-threatening language, and be prepared to repeat or re-explain information if necessary.

2. Calming toddlers and children

Paediatric patients can experience high levels of anxiety in clinical settings, and they don’t have the same coping mechanisms as adults. Nurses can help calm paediatric patients by describing what is happening in age-appropriate language, empowering the child with a choice (such as choosing where they want to sit) and distracting them with a toy or a story when appropriate. If the nurse needs to have a difficult or distressing conversation with the parents, this should take place away from the child.​

3. Defusing difficult situations

Dealing with distressed or angry patients requires a high level of professionalism. Nurses need to ensure they’re not reactive when dealing with a patient who is aggressive or combative. Calm, positive language may de-escalate the situation. Nurses shouldn’t be disheartened by negative encounters and should continue to work with patients regardless of their initial reactions. When nurses exercise patience and have realistic expectations, patients can come around to accepting care.

4. Communicating with families

Families appreciate regular updates on the condition of their loved ones. Sensitivity is particularly important in these situations. Nurses can assist by providing clear and comprehensive information while being mindful of their patients’ privacy rights. In the case of elderly patients who struggle to take care of themselves, family members may take responsibility for overseeing their care.

When a large family group is present, it’s often best if one family member is appointed as the main contact, so the nurse and other healthcare professionals only need to convey key information once. This approach minimises the possibility of conflicting information circulating among the family group.

5. Sharing patient information with other health professionals

Interdisciplinary communication is now routinely facilitated via healthcare technology systems. These are designed to eliminate communication errors between doctors, nurses and other professionals involved in the patient’s care.

Of course, face-to-face communication between healthcare professionals is still a key aspect of multidisciplinary care. In these situations, nurses need to be assertive and represent the nursing or midwifery perspective while showing respect for allied health professionals’ roles and scopes of practice.

6. Looking beyond verbal communication

Non-verbal and visual methods can be effective communication strategies for nurses. Non-verbal communication is conveyed via body language, posture and gestures. Body language is critical when communicating with patients. Smiling, leaning in and maintaining eye contact reinforce verbal messages. Humour, when appropriate and natural, can also relieve tension and establish rapport.

When words and non-verbal communication conflict, people are likely to engage more with the non-verbal message. Verbal and non-verbal messages must be aligned. Nurses can use ‘active listening’ techniques to enhance face-to-face communication. This can be as simple as having an open stance (no crossed arms) and nodding the head to indicate understanding.

Patients with a physical or cognitive impairment benefit greatly when visual communication tools convey information. Tools such as printed sheets or bedside tablet technology can allow patients to absorb information at their own pace.

7. Using formal strategies

Across Australia, healthcare providers have implemented various formal policies to standardise the communication methods used by healthcare professionals in their organisations. These policies provide nurses with a solid framework, helping them meet their communication goals within a limited period. These include:

  • The BATHE Technique: This stands for Background, Affect, Trouble, Handling and Empathy (BATHE) technique. It prompts nurses to ask patients a series of open-ended questions. The BATHE technique should take a maximum of five minutes, making it an efficient way to procure important information that may inform the care provided.
  • The Teach-back strategy: This technique reminds nurses to ask patients if they have understood the information received. The patient is asked to repeat the information in their own words. This reveals any gaps in understanding and also encourages the patient to ask questions.

Formal strategies are particularly important during transitions of care when the risk of communication errors increases. This can lead to poor health outcomes, patient distress or inappropriate patient care.

8. Nurturing intuition and respect

While the use of formal policies and strategies is a fundamental necessity, nurses should develop their intuitive skills when communicating with patients and colleagues. Compassion, awareness and professionalism inspire trust in the nurse-patient relationship, ultimately leading to better outcomes for all.

Additionally, it’s important to ensure that all patients are treated in a culturally-appropriate way that respects their customs. When this type of care is delivered, it helps patients respond more positively to the information nurses need to share with them.

Discover a career in nursing

Strategies that promote effective communication for nurses are vital to the role. Delivering crucial information to patients is a key part of the job. This often means translating complicated medical jargon and communicating in ways that optimise patient trust and understanding. Learning communication techniques can benefit anyone in the nursing field.

Nurses interested in developing these skills should consider the JCU’s Online Master of Nursing. This program includes a subject on Persuasive Communication, emphasising the importance of communicating across the many mediums that healthcare professionals use in the workplace.

Discover how a Master of Nursing from JCU Online can boost your communication skills and advance your career.


Find out more about JCU’s online Master of Nursing.

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