Nurses and the Art of Listening


Published: 18 February 2020

It’s been said that humans have two ears and one mouth so that they’ll listen twice as much as they talk - nurses and healthcare professionals are no exception.

Listening is central to the provision of high-quality nursing, yet the art of listening is rarely taught in a way that allows nurses to truly develop stellar listening and communication skills.

Do you listen to your patients and colleagues twice as much as you talk?

Nurses Listening to Patients

As nurses, our patients can make our work significantly easier - and potentially improve their own health outcomes - if they’re willing to talk candidly about their experiences.

However, nurses don’t always give patients the space to share so openly.

When sitting with a patient who is non-compliant with their treatment, it’s easy to default to giving a lecture about the ways in which they’re sabotaging their care.

Does a lecture build trust? Generally not. And many patients will simply shut down in the face of being spoken to in such a manner.

If an elderly patient attempts to confide something meaningful to a nurse but that nurse just continues chatting amiably about her weekend, a golden opportunity can be lost.

Patients often want to unburden themselves and share, however their shame, embarrassment and other feelings of self-judgment can stand in the way.

nurses listening

A nurse who puts down what they’re doing, looks a patient in the eye and asks a probing question would do well to actually listen to the answer.

Listening is not a skill addressed well in the education of healthcare professionals - but it should be. Listening to patients means observing body language, facial expressions and eye contact, as well as hearing the words that are spoken.

When in the vulnerable position of being ill, a patient is more apt to open up to a nurse who verbally and non-verbally expresses a desire to listen - but how many nurses actually do so?

Nurses Listening to Colleagues

Many workplace conflicts occur due to miscommunication. When doctors, nurses, therapists, social workers, case managers, social workers and other healthcare staff fail to communicate effectively, healthcare outcomes and patient care suffer.

Teamwork and interprofessional collaboration can falter when good listening skills are not practised, and such rifts in the fabric of the healthcare team are dangerous and wholly avoidable.

Healthcare doesn’t occur in a vacuum and those of us who provide care must do so in the spirit of pursuing the best possible resolution for everyone, especially patients.

All too often, various healthcare disciplines are stuck in their own professional silos: the physicians talk to each other, the nurses stick together and everyone plays in their own sandbox.

However, when communication is central to the mission, everyone benefits; this is where listening plays its part.

When a doctor has an order to discuss with a nurse, the nurse must listen carefully so that they understand what’s being communicated. And if the nurse needs to question that order due to a perceived error, it’s the physician’s turn to open their ears and close their mouth.

Failure to do so can be catastrophic - or at least inconvenient or unfortunate.

The Lost Art of Listening?

Listening may sometimes appear to be a lost art, yet all is not lost since it’s not difficult to improve one’s skills at any stage of your career.

As healthcare providers, a keen ear and willingness to listen seem like they should come naturally, but not everyone has a background that lends itself to such skills.

Communication can be learned from books, articles, podcasts, videos, workshops, webinars and mentors. We can learn to listen more effectively through the quiet observation of skilled listeners and communicators, as well as through practicing at every opportunity.

When faced with a patient who seems to have something important to share, ask open-ended questions that lend themselves to the patient opening up.

When you feel the need to talk more than might be effective, ask a clarifying question such as, 'Can you tell me more about that?', 'How does that feel?', or 'Why would that be?'.

Strong eye contact and open body language (e.g. arms and legs uncrossed, face and body turned towards the speaker) can help a great deal, and if your patient is a child or older adult, make a special effort to sit at their level so that you’re not perceived as being ‘above’ them, since this will short-circuit an intimidating power dynamic.

nurse listening to patient

Becoming a better listener isn’t rocket science, yet, our fast-paced culture of text messages and tweets can shorten our attention span and reduce our ability to stop and tune in. Practice with your children, spouse and friends, and then bring what you learn to work.

With so many great resources at your fingertips, any healthcare professional with a keen desire to be a better listener can accomplish that goal with relative ease.

Nurse, go forth and listen and you’ll see improved relationships with colleagues, patients more willing to talk, as well as a more satisfying experience in your career and work. Got two ears and one mouth? Use them wisely.


educator profile image
Keith Carlson View profile
Keith Carlson, RN, BSN, NC-BC, is a holistic career coach for nurses, award-winning nurse blogger, writer, podcaster, speaker, author, and popular career columnist. With two decades of nursing experience, Keith deeply understands the issues faced by 21st-century nurses. Keith’s two podcasts, RNFM Radio and The Nurse Keith Show, offer inspiration and practical support to nurses seeking to create meaningful, satisfying lives and careers. Keith’s message of savvy career management and professional satisfaction reaches tens of thousands of nurses worldwide. Keith can be found on many social media platforms---including Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, LinkedIn, and Instagram - as well as at and Digital Doorway.