As a healthcare worker, meeting and managing difficult patients and family members is all part and parcel of the job.
When an individual is making things difficult, it often reflects their dissatisfaction with the service provided. Whether their reaction is justified or not, it is our duty as healthcare workers to address their concerns and diffuse the situation diplomatically.
Here are 10 tips on how you can navigate a sticky situation with difficult patients or family members with ease:
1. Understand the problem
To be able to fully empathise with an individual, we have to first understand what they are going through. An individual in distress may complain about 101 seemingly trivial problems, but it is your duty to figure out the underlying reason for their actions.
For example, a patient’s family member may be giving you a difficult time by complaining about food portions, room temperature, and other trivial issues, but their actions may truly stem from their fear and uncertainty from a lack of information about their loved one’s condition.
2. Empathise with the individual
Try to understand their point of view. With health concerns weighing heavily on their minds, it is understandable that people are not in the best of moods. The fear, worry, discomfort and helplessness they are experiencing can manifest as aggression and agitation, causing them to lash out at even the slightest inconvenience. However, keep in mind that in most of these cases, it isn’t a personal attack but a response to their fears.
3. Manage your emotions
When an individual lashes out at you, it is best not to react in kind. Reacting to the situation inappropriately can aggravate and escalate the situation. If you catch yourself responding or reacting negatively to the situation, step back, take a deep breath to stay calm and avoid getting defensive.
Remember, it’s not about you—it’s about them. More often than not, their emotions stem from a situation prior to your encounter. Detaching your emotions and showing concern for them instead may help to diffuse the situation.
4. Create a safe space for open communication
Create a safe space for your patient and their family members to share their story and concerns. Show interest in what they have to say and give them ample of time and space to fully express their concerns and worries. If they become emotional, console them and allow them to unload their emotional baggage without judgement.
When given an opportunity to freely express their psychological and emotional needs, they may feel calmer and less distressed, allowing you to connect with them better.
5. Practise active listening
Active listening is a skill that all healthcare professionals should have in their repertoire. Not only does it allow us to better manage difficult patients, it can come in handy in all sorts of communication—from consoling family members and building rapport with patients, to effective communication with fellow teammates, which is crucial in the medical field.
Here are some tips and tricks that can make even the most difficult patients feel heard and understood, so that they are able to calm down and communicate more effectively with you:
- Eye contact
Eye contact is an important form of communication, especially in face-to-face interactions. However, too much eye contact can also seem intimidating, so you will have to adapt accordingly. You can maintain eye contact for a few seconds, then look to the side. Avoid looking down since it may make you seem avoidant and want to end the conversation.
- Pay attention to their body language
Assess their tone of voice, word choice and body posture. Non-verbal cues can tell you a lot about how they are feeling and possibly the reason behind their actions.
- Never interrupt
Interrupting can make it seem as if you are cutting them off rudely and not willing to spend the time to listen and solve their problems. If there are a few seconds of pause or silence, you don’t have to jump in immediately to fill up the space. Let them take some time to gather their thoughts and emotions before speaking, while you take the time to absorb and understand them as well.
- Acknowledge the situation
You can start by saying something like, “I understand why you are feeling frustrated” to make them feel like both of you are on the same page, on the same side, and working to resolve the issue at hand together.
- Paraphrase and summarise what they said
Occasionally repeating what they shared with you back to them is an effective way to show that you are paying attention and understand their point of view. It also allows an opportunity for them to clarify any points that you may have misunderstood, allowing for more effective communication.
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6. Be proactive
If you notice that a patient or their family members are distressed, don’t avoid them. The situation is unlikely to resolve itself, so it’s better to just nip it in the bud before it becomes a bigger problem. Take the first step and reach out to them. They will appreciate your attentiveness and proactiveness in approaching them to hear them out and address their concerns.
7. Watch your body language
While it can be subtle, your body language can help to calm the patient and show your thoughts and intentions. If the patient is agitated and you are frustrated, it can be difficult to make progress with them if you let your negative emotions show as well.
Take deep breaths to calm yourself down and refocus your energy to solving the problem at hand. Make a conscious effort to pay attention to your body language. You may slow down your speech or even sit down to show them that you are willing to spend the time to listen to their concerns and work out a solution together.
Adopt an open posture, which means you should avoid crossing your arms or legs, which can make you look defensive. Leaning forward or tilting your head slightly may also help to show that you are attentively listening to what they have to say.
Remember that the first step is to always recognise your response to the situation, and then control your thoughts, words, tone, and body language to convey your message and emotions effectively.
8. Figure out a solution
Once you find out why they are being difficult, find a solution to their problem. Let them know your next course of action to resolve this issue, and tell them to keep you updated with ongoing feedback to ensure the problem is adequately addressed and resolved.
Whenever possible, follow-up with the patient so that they are aware of your dedication to solving their issue. This can help them feel reassured that you are on the same team as them, so if there are any other problems in the future, they may be more willing to resolve them amicably rather than make things difficult for you.
9. Connect them to additional support
A comprehensive healthcare team is needed to provide holistic care to a patient. While it is commendable that you are motivated to do everything in your ability to help the patient, acknowledge that there is only so much you can do as an individual.
Consider referring them to a social worker or someone else they can speak with, where they can possibly work through their emotions and other difficulties better than with you. Make sure to broach this subject gracefully and with tact so that they do not feel like you’ve abandoned them.
10. Set boundaries
While we strive to be understanding and accommodating in most situations, there has to be a limit. When an individual starts yelling profanities at you at the top of their lungs, it can constitute verbal abuse. Continue to stay calm, but firmly let them know that this behaviour is not acceptable and that you deserve to receive the same respect you give.
Step out of the room to give them some time and space to calm down before continuing the conversation. If necessary, bring a colleague with you the next time you attempt to talk to them again.
As a nurse in a hospital setting, it can be easy to become desensitised after working for some time, as you care for hundreds of patients day in day out. Conditions like dementia, or medication that can cause agitation, confusion or drowsiness will need special attention, but with a hectic schedule, you may feel like you’re not able to give your full attention to every patient and personalise the care delivered.
At Homage, you can choose the patients you would like to care for, and even engage with them on a regular basis. While this does not entirely eliminate the possibility of meeting difficult patients and/or family members, delivering care in a one-on-one setting means you will be able to give each individual your full attention and spend the time and effort to build better rapport and personalise the care delivered.
Whether you are working in a hospital, care facility or home-based setting, you are bound to meet difficult patients or family members at one point or another, but always remember that a little empathy can go a long way!