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Improving listening and empathy as a nurse

Important skills for being a psychiatric nurse are listening, understanding, and showing empathy

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Improving listening and empathy as a nurse

Important skills for being a psychiatric nurse are listening, understanding, and showing empathy. You will often have to deal with patients who have different experiences to your own. So, listening and encouraging them to open up while showing empathy might not always be easy.


When taking degrees and other courses in psychiatric nursing, such as those offer by Wilkes, you’ll learn more about mental illness, how to diagnose, and medication, among other things, depending on the specific qualification you take. As important as it is to know those things, listening is the first step in helping people, so you can put that knowledge into practice. Patients and even concerned members of their family may not be able to tell you what’s wrong. Their breakdown of what is happening can help you determine the problem – if you listen to what they have to say and apply your knowledge to interpret what that means in term of a possible diagnosis.

Putting yourself in their place

You may not have experienced the same issues, mental illness, stigma, or anything else that the patient is struggling with. Putting yourself in someone’s else’s place doesn’t mean thinking what you would do if this happened to you. It’s more about looking at the bigger picture and thinking what you would do if your life had been their life. Even common experiences such as divorce, grief or other big life changes can be vastly different, depending on the personal circumstances and how people react to things. Listening is the first step to developing empathy. If you encourage your patient to share the details of their own experience, you may be unable to relate to the exact details, but you can get an understanding of how it impacts them. This can help you show empathy to their situation and find ways to help them.

Don’t interrupt

When it’s your job to help someone, it’s easy to let your mind wander when they’re talking, as you think about how to help them, follow-up questions you want to ask or suggestions you want to make, while they’re still talking. If you wait until they’re finished, you can get a better idea of the problem. Butting in might mean they omit important details that don’t seem significant to them. Learning to listen means being patient, making brief notes if you have to (so you don’t forget to ask those questions) and keeping your attention on the person. Before responding, follow the above suggestion to put yourself in their place, in their specific circumstances. Combining listening skills with empathy can help you to help them in a way which benefits them, rather than offer a solution based on your own circumstances which will be different to theirs.

Listening and empathy skills might seem difficult to develop, but if you are working or training to work as a psychiatric nurse, you probably already have a desire to help people. You will have put a lot of time and effort into learning. You probably already have some experience of listening and showing empathy, you might just need to build on that.

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