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How to Deal With Difficult Patients as a Nurse

Doctor talking with senior patientYou’ll have times as a nurse when a patient compliments you and absolutely makes your day — but at other times, difficult patients can leave you frustrated and exhausted. You know how important it is to remain diplomatic and professional, but you also don’t want to let people walk all over you.

With a little practice, you can continue to treat tough patients with respect but earn their trust and admiration in return. Here are five tips for making the best of a challenging situation.

Be an excellent listener

Sometimes patients become obstinate and rude simply because they feel they’re being ignored or that doctors and nurses are not honoring their requests. While it’s never possible to make everyone happy or to cave to unreasonable demands, you can help diffuse a tense situation by saying, “What’s bothering you?” or “How can I help you feel better?” Then make eye contact with the patient, nod your head and show that you’re listening.

Even if the patient’s response is a negative one, you may learn something about him or her and may be able to avoid future conflicts — and you’ll know that you tried to make things better.

Stand up for yourself

Though it’s certainly not a good idea to lose your temper when a patient yells at you, you shouldn’t let someone verbally abuse you and pretend not to hear it. Instead, calmly respond with a phrase like “I’m sorry you feel that way, and I’d appreciate it if you don’t call me that name or yell at me. How can we make this situation better?” Keeping your own tone and language positive can help the patient realize she is being unreasonable and help her calm down enough to discuss what’s really wrong.

Be aware of your body language and nonverbal cues

You may think patients don’t know you don’t like them, but they can quickly pick up on your sharp tone of voice, eye rolls, brisk walk and crossed arms and know how you really feel. Not only does this make you lose your patients’ respect and confidence, it can make coordinating care even more difficult.

If you find your body language frequently gives you away, practice using positive nonverbal cues instead, such as smiling, keeping your arms at your sides instead of folding them, and making your face pleasant instead of furrowing your brow or rolling your eyes. It may take some time to master this, so role play with a coworker if you need to.

Put yourself in your patient’s shoes

When your feet and back are aching and you’ve had one too many patients (or their families) yell at you, you may find you’re fresh out of empathy. However, looking at a situation from a patient’s perspective may be what helps you bite your tongue and keep going. The hospital or doctor’s office can be an uncomfortable place for even the most calm people, and some overreact because of fear, anger or resentment that others around them seem to be healthy.

Before saying something you regret, try considering why the patient is acting this way and thinking about how you would react in the same situation. This isn’t to say that your patient isn’t being unmanageable; you may be justified in your frustration. It may, however, help you to understand another person’s challenges and be a little more empathetic while you’re caring for him.

Don’t take things personally

At the end of the day when you’re reflecting on what went well and what you’d like to improve on, don’t dwell too much on what patients — or even difficult coworkers or family members — said to you. You know how it feels to say something you don’t mean and instantly want to take it back, so give others the benefit of the doubt as well and don’t let their negativity affect you. Keeping a sunny outlook, even when you’re tempted to let things get you down, will help you focus on the compliments you received and the many ways you made a difference instead.

While you’ll always have patients you don’t like and who don’t like you, the way you react to what they say can have a big impact on your career. Share your tips for dealing with difficult patients below!

About the author

Lindsay Wilcox

Lindsay Wilcox is a communication professional with experience writing for the healthcare and entertainment industries as well as local government. When she's not circling typos, she's enjoying fish tacos and hanging out with her family.


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