Interpersonal Communication in Nursing: Theory & Practice

Updated April 17, 2017

Understanding interpersonal communication theory and practice is particularly important for nurses in their verbal and nonverbal interactions. The choice of words, degree of loudness, rate of speech, tone, facial expression, attitude and emotion all affect the way a message is received and interpreted. These characteristics of the delivered message can also affect the feedback the receiver may provide. The basic skills in interpersonal communication for nurses include listening, questioning, encouraging/reinforcing, giving information, responding and comforting/reassuring.

The Basic Elements of Communication

A sender, receiver, message and channel are the basic elements of communication. The interpretation of the message received depends on the nature and interaction of these four elements. Senders and receives bring their personal backgrounds to the encoding, decoding and interpretation of messages sent and received.

Interpersonal Communication

Interpersonal communication involves oral, written and nonverbal methods, but more commonly refers to face-to-face communication transactions involving a small number of participants in close proximity. Most of the human senses serve as communication channels for verbal and nonverbal communication and there is immediate feedback.

Factors Affecting Communication

Psychological and social contexts of senders and receivers affect what they say and how they react to what is said. In an interpersonal communication transaction, nurses bring their needs, values, personalities and desires to the communication transaction. Try to view subject content from the patient's perspective. Remember that meanings for different people and vary as personalities, contexts and languages vary

Effective Messages

It is not enough to want to communicate. To be effective, a nurse may need to be clear, simple, short and direct. Give specific examples and demonstrations, and repeat in different ways. The receiver should know what it is you want to communicate and should understand why, when, how, who and where.

Barriers to Effective Communication

Anything that distorts the intended message can be termed noise that prevents the receiver from interpreting in the intended manner. Physical or psychological barriers can prevent a patient from understanding a nurse or responding to a request. Try to understand nonverbal cues such as facial expressions, eye movements, hand gestures, body postures and uncontrolled responses such as pulse and respiration rates. In potential conflict situations, avoid hasty, unpleasant retorts. Empathise with others and think carefully before saying anything that could potentially lead to conflict.

Effective Listening

Try not to be a passive listener. Concentrate. Attend to the words, tone, level of loudness, silences, emotion and attitude. Avoid interruption and judgment. Occasionally repeat or paraphrase what was said to ensure understanding, and encourage the speaker with nods or verbal cues.

Breaking Bad News

Consider the relevant ethical and moral issues. Consult your institution's written policy and guidelines for communicating sensitive information for different situations. Remember that patients and their loved ones are fellow human beings. Avoid giving bad news on the telephone.

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About the Author

A travel writer for over 10 years, Seeta Shah Roath features economic reviews, investment opportunities, history, culture and tourism in different countries. She has a Doctoral degree in education from the University of Phoenix and a passion for e-learning. Her articles appear in Washington Times Global and