5 Tips on How to Develop Emotional Intelligence in Nursing

emotional intelligence in nursingby Elizabeth Marcant

Kathleen Lynam, RN and national speaker for the Healthcare Experience Foundation says, "Emotional intelligence (EI) is heralded as the most significant factor in the success of any individual's performance at work." 

Find out how to develop emotional intelligence in nursing to improve your performance and positively impact the care you provide patients.  

5 Tips for Developing Emotional Intelligence in Nursing 

1. Understand that Your Personal Perspective is Limited 

Suzanne Garber, director and producer of the award-winning PBS documentary "GAUZE: Unraveling Global Healthcare" has experience filming and working with healthcare providers across the world.  

She points out that nurses must be able to look beyond their own personal perspective to develop wide-ranging emotional intelligence that serves disparate patient populations. 

"Most hospitals we visited advocate spending time with foreign patients to improve patient satisfaction," says Garber. 

She says nurses were encouraged to asked patients questions about their preferences. "This helps the nurse better understand things like how meals should be presented/prepared, patient prayer needs (mats, shawls, or rugs) and anything else that might help the patient recover faster," says Garber. 

 "All of these cultural nuances help nurses improve their emotional intelligence because they are able to better empathize with their patients, which leads to a quicker and more pleasant (for the patient at least) recovery." 

For travel nurses, who serve patients from all types of backgrounds across the United States, cultural competency definitely goes hand-in-hand with emotional intelligence.

2. Shift the Focus Away from Yourself 

Rhonda Williams, RN and Executive Life Strategist, agrees that professionals need to reach outside of their own perspective to develop strong emotional intelligence in nursing. 

"Without self-awareness, it is difficult to have social awareness." says Williams. "A strategy I would recommend for nurses is developing the skill of empathy and social awareness by asking the following questions: 

  • What do I understand about this person?
  • What might they be thinking or feeling?
  • What do they need or expect from me?

She says this mental exercise shifts the focus away from the nurse, allowing him or her to approach the situation from the patient's perspective, which makes empathetic responses and communication more likely. 

This same tactic is critical to employing emotional intelligence in nursing leadership. Nurse managers must be able to approach a problem from other nurses' perspectives to make a well-rounded decision.

3. Increase Emotional Intelligence in Nursing by Recognizing your Own Triggers 

But emotional intelligence isn't just about observing and understanding your patients or coworkers. It's also about understanding yourself. 

"With the increasingly challenging demands of healthcare, having the ability to recognize your own emotional triggers, control your instinctive response to those triggers, and avoid the cycle of defense or attack allows for compassionate, empathetic responses," says Lyman. 

This may be more difficult than it sounds for nurses, who have to develop a professional affect that is encouraging and understanding without being overly emotional in the face of difficult circumstances or diagnoses. In short, nurses have to contain their emotions to get the job done.  

A study published by Elsevier noted that the professional face was important in nursing but also concluded that nurses may experience "emotional dissonance in situations where they have unresolved personal emotional issues." 

By delving into your own personal and professional issues, you can learn to identify these situations as they arise, leading to better control over your emotions.

4. Practice Controlling your Own Emotional Responses 

Lyman recommends taking time to sit and reflect, possibly in writing so you can review your thoughts at later times. She suggests considering questions such as: 

  • What are you good at?
  • What do you love to do?
  • What do people say your strengths are?
  • What or who provokes an emotional response in you?
  • What does that emotional response look like in you and on you (e.g., Does your neck turn red? Does your stomach clench? Does your face get drawn? Do you sigh, groan or hunch your shoulders?)
  • Next, Lyman says you have to decide whether these responses or behaviors need to change for your emotional intelligence in nursing (and your overall performance) to improve. 

"The key to managing an instinctively emotional response," says Lyman, "is to take a millisecond and mindfully choose not to react but rather to respond." 

American Nurse Today, the official journal of the American Nursing Association, points out that nurses should also identify any mental health issues that may be contributing to their emotions.  

In the case where the emotional response is pathological, you may not be able to take that millisecond. In these cases, working with a mental health provider to learn coping mechanisms can be appropriate.

5. Work with an Accountability Partner 

Lyman does admit that controlling your emotional responses as a nurse can be difficult. It takes practice and time to develop emotional intelligence in nursing, and she recommends seeking support in doing so. 

Talk with a trusted peer or supervisor about emotional intelligence in nursing and what your own strengths and weaknesses may be.  

Share your observations about yourself and your plan for improvement and ask for their feedback.  

Then, work with them as an accountability partner to improve your emotional intelligence over time. 

Emotional intelligence in nursing leadership or clinical work doesn't come easy to every RN. But, like communication and other interpersonal skills, it's something you can get better at over time.

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