As a nurse, you will encounter many different types of people throughout your
career. Some will have pleasant personalities, others not so much. Likewise, many of
the individuals you will work with will be experiencing various emotions due to
their situation, which can affect how they engage with other people. For instance,
someone who is normally very even-keeled may become frustrated, angry or even
aggressive when he or she is in pain or worried about an impending medical
condition. Whatever the case may be, there will inevitably be times when you will
have to treat someone who is unpleasant to deal with. And while it’s par for the
course, that doesn’t mean there aren’t certain things you can do to make the best
out of a challenging situation. To follow are nine expert tips a try.
This may seem easier said than done, but it’s imperative that you remain as calm,
cool and collected as possible. As mentioned, the patient may be dealing with a lot
of emotions, such as fear, anxiety or anger, which can impact how they interact with
those around them. Or he or she may simply be a difficult person in general. In
either case, remaining calm will allow you to maintain control over the
situation and deliver the appropriate treatment needed.
Remember, it’s not you, it’s them.
Sometimes a patient will be difficult simply due to their personal beliefs,
regardless of whether they are right or wrong. For instance, some people still feel
that nurses should be female. It’s important that male nurses not take outdated
opinions like this personally. Likewise, someone who is frustrated and
lashing out may say things they don’t mean or know nothing about. For example, a
patient who is upset may call you uncaring or unprofessional, even though you’re
doing your absolute best. Keep reminding yourself that it’s not you, it’s them.
You know what you’re doing, even if the patient you are attempting to treat seems to
be questioningyour every move. Yes, you should listen to what the patient has to
say, but at the end of the day, be confident in your training and experience. Keep
in mind, also, that people who exude confidence earn respect. If you feel your self-
assurance starting to wane, take a step back and remind yourself to “Fake it ‘til
you make it.”
Start a dialogue.
Oftentimes a difficult patient doesn’t even know why he or she is lashing out in the
first place. Other times, it’s simply because they feel as though they aren’t being
heard. Taking a moment to start a dialogue and engage in conversation can give the
patient a voice and help them work through their feelings. Always refer to the
patient by his or her first name, speak softly and calmly and maintain eye
contact. Avoid using negative language or an inflammatory tone. Whenever feasible,
ask the patient what they need. And when all else fails, sometimes you just need to
listen while they vent.
There will sometimes be patients who are simply looking to pick a fight, and as
their nurse, you will likely become a target at some point in time. Again, remain
calm and practice active listening. No matter how difficult it is, never allow a
patient to draw you into an argument. Always remain respectful, regardless of the
situation and don’t engage or escalate. For instance, if a patient is demanding to
know why he isn’t getting enough attention or why his meds were late, instead of
going back and forth, simply apologize and reassure him that you’ll take care of the
One of the fastest and most effective ways to diffuse a tense situation with an
angry or difficult patient is to show them some empathy. Put yourself in their shoes
for a moment and remember that it’s not always easy to be on the opposite side of
the stethoscope – especially for someone who is feeling frightened or experiencing
pain. Take a few moments to let the patient know that you understand how upsetting
the situation must be for them. If possible, share a personal story of a similar
situation you or someone close to you experienced. At the very least, show them that
you genuinely care about them.
Set some boundaries.
When it comes to a patient who is being difficult by making unreasonable or never-
ending demands, you may need to set some limits for your own sanity. For instance, a
patient in the hospital may be insisting that you spend more time tending to her
needs, despite the fact that you have half a dozen other patients on your list. Set
boundaries, such as letting her know that you will be in to check on her at
specific time intervals (i.e. every 30 minutes) and follow through. It may not be
the answer she’s looking for, but it’s the closest thing to a compromise you can
offer. Setting expectations is the key.
Ever notice how someone’s smile, laugh or general good mood can really rub off on
you? The opposite can also be true, so try to set the tone with all of your patients
by staying positive. When you enter a room with a cheerful demeanor, you might be
met with a reciprocal smile. Even if it doesn’t happen right away, maintaining a
consistently good natured attitude will produce dividends over time, not just
amongst your patients, but also your colleagues and everyone you encounter.
Shake it off.
If, after trying all of the above, you are simply unable to break through or make
any headway with a patient, don’t let it drag you down. After an unpleasant
interaction, it’s normal to feel frustrated or upset. Take a moment to work through
those feelings (away from the patient, of course) and then let them go. Remind
yourself that this comes with the territory of being a nurse and while there will
occasional moments like this, the good and rewarding parts of your career will
always outweigh the bad.
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