7 Tips for Dealing With Difficult Patients

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Written by Ayana Dunn, BSN, RN Content Writer, IntelyCare
Nurse taking a break after bad patient interaction

Every occupation has its challenges, and nursing is no exception. One of the biggest recurring issues is dealing with difficult patients. What’s considered “difficult” exists on a spectrum: Issues can run from patients who are repeatedly admitted for a diagnosis rooted in lifestyle factors, to those in correctional facilities, or outright physically combative patients instigating violence against nurses.

Thankfully, you have tools to navigate these stressful situations. Our seven tips can help you regardless of what you’re facing.

1. Have Empathy for the Patient and Yourself

Take into account their fear and frustration on top of everything else that could be going on in their lives. People aren’t always intentionally nasty, but rather acting out because they’re feeling overwhelmed.

Remember to take your own emotions into account. The responsibility that comes with providing healthcare is inherently stressful, and it can be difficult to help manage other people’s problems on top of your own.

Empathy for your patients eases your ability to not take their behavior personally, and empathy for yourself aids your ability to set boundaries to maintain your wellbeing.

2. Listen Actively and Verbally Acknowledge the Patient’s Perspective

Everyone wants to be heard, especially if the conversation is about something as vital as healthcare. Feeling dismissed can frustrate patients and lead to a stressful situation. You can save yourself a potential problem by actively listening from the beginning of the interaction.

If the situation is already tense, active listening can only help when dealing with difficult patients. Plus, it’s necessary to address the root of the patient’s problem. Verbal acknowledgement of your listening shows patients you’re invested in their opinion. Feeling heard can help quell some of their frustration and the negative behaviors stemming from them. Try repeating the patients’ words back to them to demonstrate your understanding and show them they’re being heard.

Remember to actively listen to yourself throughout the day. Are you irritated from sleep deprivation or an interaction with a coworker? Saddened by the situation of a patient you’re fond of? Periodic recognition of your emotional state is the first step to addressing what’s bothering you. This helps to decrease the likelihood of your contributing to a negative interaction with a patient.

3. Be Mindful of Your Tone and Body Language

How you’re perceived doesn’t always align with the message you’re trying to convey nor how you’re feeling. This is where listening to your emotions and the resulting inner dialogue is key when learning how to deal with difficult patients.

Do your best to maintain a respectful tone and non-threatening body language. At the very least, mindfulness of your non-verbal communication ensures you’re not communicating in a way that makes patients feel defensive, and at best you’re presenting yourself as someone they can finally relax around.

4. Try Not to Take It Personally

Remember, the situation a patient is in is not your fault. Although aggressive patient behavior is not excusable, some people don’t express negative emotions until they’re with someone they believe won’t make them face consequences for their behavior. Sadly, nurses are often left to take the brunt of that.

5. If Possible, Take a Time-Out

If you know you’re about to enter a tense situation, take a moment to collect yourself before dealing with difficult patients and families. If you sense you’re nearing your limit during a tense conversation, stepping outside the door or out of the patient’s line of sight is an option so long as it’s safe. It’s better to do that than to say or do something you’ll regret later.

6. Involve Your Manager or Security, If Need Be

Sometimes, it’s easier and safer to get help. The presence of an authority figure might quell certain people and could save you trouble when dealing with difficult patients.

7. Set Boundaries With Your Patients and Yourself

Speak up for yourself by setting boundaries when a patient is disrespectful as soon as possible. For example, if a patient is using foul language, you can calmly tell them that if they don’t change their word choice, you’ll leave the room and return when they’re able to communicate respectfully. This ensures you’re not carrying resentment that could potentially bleed into the next interaction. It may also make the patient less likely to be rude to you in the future.

You must also uphold boundaries with yourself throughout the day to maintain emotional and physical wellbeing. Do you feel your blood sugar dropping? Grab a quick snack so you’re not “hangry” when speaking to a patient. Need to use the restroom? Don’t continuously put it off so that you’re rushing so much a patient feels dismissed. Upset about a stressful run-in with a coworker? Take a moment to de-stress in the bathroom so you don’t take out your feelings on someone in dire need of positivity.

Achieve a Better Nurse-Life Balance

Dealing with difficult patients is stressful, but having a job you enjoy can help you feel more in control. Discover how IntelyCare can support your career by sending you the types of nursing jobs that match your skills and interests.