What is the most important skill in a nurse’s toolbox?

Is it attention to detail? Or good time management?

How about critical thinking? Or flexibility and being able to quickly adapt to fluid situations?

These are all vital skills every good nurse has. But there is one skill that goes above and beyond the others to ensure that you’re providing the best quality of care to your patients.

Practicing empathy.

Empathy, along with compassion, is essential to caring for patients. It’s being able to understand their fears, frustrations and concerns while putting yourself in their position.

In school, you’re taught the ethics of nursing and how you should properly interact with your patients. You learn that you’re not just administering medications and taking temperatures. As a nurse you’re also responsible for your patient’s emotional and psychological wellbeing.

If you’re a nursing student or a rookie nurse, you may understand the concept of empathy in nursing. But how exactly do you show empathy?

First, let’s dive into the concept of empathy, then we’ll look at ways you can show empathy to your patients.

What Is Empathy And Why Is It Important?

You hear it in nursing school and at nursing seminars – empathy, alongside compassion, is a crucial element of good nursing. But what exactly is empathy and why is it important?

Well if you want to get technical:


1 : the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner


More simply put, empathy is being able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, to understand where they’re coming from.

Why is showing empathy such an important practice for nurses?

Nobody goes to the hospital for a good time. Patients there because they’re dealing with health issues, sometimes serious ones. That’s stressful for almost everyone, including the patient’s family and loved ones.

Sometimes those patients and loved ones are going to need to vent their stress, fears and frustrations.

And who is the person that they have the most interaction with? That’s right, you – the nurse.

If you practice empathy with each of your patients, studies have shown that not only will you have better patient interactions and outcomes, your own level of stress in the workplace can go down.

Just a small dose of empathy can brighten your patient’s day and make them feel a little better.

So how can you work to cultivate express empathy?

Cultivating And Expressing Empathy

Cultivating empathy is easy. All you have to do is be present and remember that the patient could be your friend, grandmother, son, wife – or even you. See them as a person.

For new nurses without much experience, finding the right words to say to patients can be difficult. You may not know the answer to their question or are afraid to say something wrong.

Seasoned nurses may be a bit jaded, having seen it all and done it twice, and interactions with patients can just go on autopilot.

In both situations, it can be difficult to express empathy with patients. But sometimes it just takes an extra minute and sympathetic ear to show empathy. Many people just want to feel like they’ve been heard.

The tools to help you cultivate empathy are pretty straightforward. Most of them only require you to listen, hear and understand your patients.

Here are 7 ways to show empathy:


Listening is the #1 way to express empathy. Listen and really hear your patient what your patient is saying. Don’t just hear the sounds coming out of their mouth – listen to what they’re telling you. Good listening skills include:

  • Making eye contact
  • Turning to face them
  • Nodding or saying “yes”, “I see”, etc. to show you’re engaged

Sometimes your patient just needs to vent – let them do it (but not in an abusive manner – remember, no one has the right to abuse anyone else).

Kill the autopilot

Sure you’ve changed out an IV bag or given an injection a thousand times, so it’s easy just to go on autopilot and get it done.

But for the patient who’s not familiar with what’s going on, it can create anxiety or fear. Stop, take a second and be fully present in your interaction with each patient. If you need to explain something or answer a question, take the time to do it.

Don’t Judge

Don’t be judgmental or jump to conclusions. Understand them without putting up the barrier of judgment. You may be wrong about the situation or what they’re feeling.

Don’t Dismiss

Being dismissive of any concerns or questions can make anyone angry. Nobody likes it when they’re given the brush off. Even if it’s something you’ve already explained, maybe the patient just needs reassuring and talking it out will help them process the situation.


Few, if any, of your patients will have medical backgrounds. They won’t know what side-effect a medication may have or what hospital procedures are. This can be frustrating and frightening. It may just be standard operating procedure to you but for them they’re lost. Take the time to explain what you’re doing and answer questions your patient may have.

Acknowledge Emotions

If your patient is feeling angry, frustrated, anxious or fearful, make the effort to acknowledge and validate those emotions. Let them know you hear and understand how they’re feeling. This can help your patient come to terms with their feelings.

Silence is OK

Don’t feel like you need the fill an awkward silence with chatter. People experience silence differently. Your silence can be especially useful in a tense interaction with a patient. Rather than talking over them, just let them get it out while actively listening and saying nothing.


After listening to you patient, paraphrase or summarize what they’ve just told you to show that they’ve been heard and you understand what they’re saying.


Every person has the innate capacity for empathy and compassion. Especially those who answered the call to become a nurse – to care for the sick, injured and the dying. That in itself expresses empathy more than any words.

If you’re a new nurse, or have been nursing for years, and need some help expressing empathy just use the tips above and remember:

  • Care for every patient like a family member or loved one
  • Treat patients the way you want to be treated
  • Always be 100% engaged, at all times
  • You’re a nurse! You do one of the most challenging and important jobs in healthcare


Have some advice on sharing empathy or a story of your own? Join us at The Buzz, our online community, and connect with fellow nurses who are just as passionate as you. Or you can email us at info@nursehiveprep.com

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