Who is the best nurse you have ever met? What made them so special? When you’re a patient, you’re placed in a position of vulnerability that can be scary. A nurse’s bedside manner makes them invaluable parts of the healthcare team.
The way a nurse interacts with their patients is part of their rapport. Building relationships with your patients can help you deliver better care. Even when you only see someone for a short time, rapport-building skills can make all the difference in their experience.
In this guide, we’ll cover nurse-patient rapport in-depth, as well as seven ways you can start building rapport with your patients.
What is rapport in nursing?
Rapport is a collaborative relationship between nurse and patient. It’s a communicative style that’s broken down into verbal and non-verbal behaviors. What you say as a nurse is just as important as how you say it.
Likewise, your body language and self-awareness play a huge role in rapport-building. Patients are highly sensitive to the way their healthcare professionals act.
They’re counting on you to make them feel better, and you can do that by staying calm, collected, and connected to their needs at all times.
It’s not just about how you speak, though. Nurses can also build rapport through conversation and humor. Patients often deal with difficult emotions and physical problems — having someone take the time to listen, talk, and share their experience can make a world of difference in how they feel.
7 ways to build rapport with patients in nursing
Your nurse-patient rapport strategies will come about independently. Every nurse has their own unique approach to care that helps them build relationships with their patients. That being said, there are some standard rapport-building techniques nurses can rely on that make finding and implementing their own style much easier and more effective.
1. Always introduce yourself
Introductions make first impressions memorable. Consider the difference between these two scenarios:
A nurse on a med/surg floor reads a patient’s file, heads into their room, and checks their vitals and charting. They confirm some details, like the patient’s name and age, before they administer some medication the tending physician prescribed and exit the room without saying goodbye.
A nurse knocks on a patient’s door and greets them with a smile. “Hi, I’m so-and-so, and I’ll be your nurse today. Do you mind if I come in?” They enter the room, ask the patient their name, and discuss why they’re in the hospital.
They ask them how comfortable they are today, and walk them through the process of taking vitals, charting, and administering any treatments the physician ordered. Before leaving, they say, “You can always press this call button if you have any questions or need anything. I’m here to help.”
As you can see, this makes an enormous difference between how a patient feels, and how likely they are to engage with the nurse later.
It’s also important to always introduce yourself, even if patients are non-verbal. Just because they cannot speak does not mean they don’t understand, or appreciate, your kindness.
2. Ask questions
“How are you feeling?”
“Is there anything I can do for you?”
“What would make you feel better right now?”
Simple questions like these go a long way in establishing a rapport built on care and compassion.
Many patients often feel ignored in healthcare, especially those currently undiagnosed or have been in long-term facilities for extended periods. They might feel as though their thoughts or feelings toward care don’t matter and that it’s only the healthcare team’s decisions that count.
Asking other questions, like what a patient does for a living, can also reveal interesting insights about them. A first-year doctor discovered that by asking about a patient’s occupation, he could build a better rapport with them and remember them much better across shifts.
Learning about a patient’s occupation, hobbies, pets, or family can also help you connect with them more during your time. Of course, it’s important to be self-aware and recognize when some questions might not have positive answers, such as in the case of an unemployed or homeless patient. However, even in those situations, most patients are still happy that their nurse took the time to try and learn a little more about them.
That being said, you should still be mindful and consider when it’s appropriate to ask certain questions and how the patient could perceive your phrasing.
For example, asking entirely off-topic questions might feel too personal and make someone uncomfortable. To avoid this, you can start by leading with something like, “To learn more about you,...” or “Just to get some information on your background,...”
3. Educate your patient
Patient education isn’t just part of your job; it’s part of building a healthy relationship with the people you care for. Patient education is tailored to every individual. And the better rapport you have, the easier it is to adjust your educational style to suit each person’s learning style and understanding.
Many factors go into effective patient education, like cultural competence and self-awareness. Make sure you’re always putting empathy first — you have to stand in your patients’ shoes to understand what they may be feeling, what concerns they may have, and any possible barriers to treatment.
As you educate patients, make sure you also take time to pause. People going through hard times find it harder to process information, so be patient. Check the patient’s body language; if they seem hesitant, uncertain, or confused, you can always ask, “Does that make sense?” or “Do you have any questions?”
4. Don’t speak in medical terms
Most people don’t come from healthcare backgrounds, so using jargon can feel cold, clinical, and impersonal. It can also lead to miscommunication and confusion. Explain everything in layman’s terms to your patients, opting for the shortest words with the least number of syllables. The easier it is to understand, the better.
Sometimes, you might feel like you’re over-simplifying things, but that’s okay. People will have a much easier time following along, and they’ll appreciate your effort to help them understand.
Make sure you pay special attention to patients with cognitive deficits, like dementia or Down’s syndrome. Generally speaking, keeping your language at a sixth-grade level is best. This ensures that anyone can understand what’s being said and follow along with your narrative.
Plainlanguage.gov can help you learn more about speaking and writing more clearly.
Just take a look at the difference between these two statements:
"You’ll have to take this medication periodically to stabilize your hypertension.”
“You’ll have to take this medication every six hours to keep your blood pressure at a safe level.”
The second is much clearer, natural-sounding, and easier for patients to follow.
5. Practice empathy
Let’s say you have a patient who is refusing to comply with treatment. They need medication, but they don’t want to take it, and every time you try to argue with them, they shut down and get angry.
It’s natural to feel frustrated with them. These treatments are for their own benefit, and you hate watching them suffer when you’re there to help. But pause, and step back for a moment. Why are they acting this way? What feelings might be overwhelming them at this moment and causing them to reject a nurse’s care?
Could they have fears about treatment outcomes they aren’t sharing? Could they be feeling a lack of control or autonomy in their care? Could misconceptions be to blame?
Patients need to feel like you understand how they’re feeling. Empathize with their situation at all times. If they need to vent, let them. If they ask for your opinion or want to know what you would do, use your best judgment and answer them honestly.
Just make sure that you’re never overstepping medical bounds when answering questions. Your role isn’t to replace a doctor, or influence a patient’s treatment choices. Your focus should be on making them feel understood, as you can genuinely relate to their feelings.
6. Create a sense of calm
Just like their treating physicians, your patients look to them for comfort and reassurance. And even in cases where the prognosis is poor, patients need someone to help calm their anxiety. Always make sure that you speak in a loving way that soothes your patients.
Answer questions and deliver health-related information in a way that’s easy to understand, as calmly as possible. As mentioned above, even patients who are given life-threatening diagnoses react better when the information is delivered in the right way.
Being calm isn’t always easy for nurses, especially when you’re overworked, patients are not cooperative, or you yourself feel distraught by their conditions. However, you must remember that the calmer you are, the more levelheaded you can be during interactions.
Maintaining a calm demeanor can naturally put patients’ nerves at ease. During stressful treatments, procedures, or after receiving a diagnosis, tranquility, and stability are the two best things you can give someone.
7. Always look at patients when you talk to them
If you’ve ever tried to talk to someone whose texting, you’ll understand how frustrating it is for patients whose nurses are distracted during consultations. Make sure that you always look up from your phone, chart, or computer to speak with your patients.
Because it’s already hard to read facial expressions with full face masks, it’s even more important to show that you’re actively listening through eye contact.
Why developing rapport is important
Nursing rapport helps patients feel calmer, safer, and more trusting of their healthcare team. It also helps improve their understanding of care instructions and be more involved in their treatment. While you might not be with every patient for a long time, you can still have meaningful interactions with them.
Many patients will recall vividly how their nurses treated them during a hospital visit. It could have been five hours in the ER or five weeks on a med/surg floor. It doesn’t matter how long they’re there — what they remember the most is how nurses treated them and how their communication style made the patient feel.
If you want to help your patients the most, building rapport is essential. On top of your skills and medical knowledge, empathy, time, and attention are the most valuable things you can give your patients.