Elderly woman smiling at a young nurse over her shoulder

The Importance of Emotional Intelligence and Empathy in Nursing Practice

How Emotional Intelligence Benefits Patients and Healthcare Providers

Elderly woman smiling at a young nurse over her shoulder

There’s no doubt nursing is an extremely rewarding career for those who live to help others. It’s also a career where you’ll regularly encounter people going through some of the most difficult times in their lives. And while nurses undergo years of training to develop their medical knowledge and clinical instincts, empathy and emotional intelligence are just as important in real-life nursing practice.

Connecting with and comforting patients (and their loved ones) is a huge part of providing compassionate care to people who may be scared, grieving, or in significant pain. At the same time, nurses must also develop healthy and sustainable strategies for handling the challenging emotions they’ll face throughout their careers.

Let’s take a closer look at the numerous ways emotional intelligence and empathy can make a difference in nursing—both for patients and for healthcare providers.

Interested in learning more about how nurses can stay physically, mentally, and emotionally healthy? Check out our list of useful self-care tips for nurses.

Understanding Emotional Intelligence and Empathy

Emotional intelligence describes a person’s ability to recognize, understand, and manage the natural emotional responses we experience in different situations. It includes your personal emotions, and also the emotions of people around you.

Think of emotional intelligence as the sum total of several different components:

Self-awareness is the ability to recognize your own emotions and how they affect you. It’s the first and most important step in building emotional intelligence.

Self-regulation refers to how well you can control your reactions and impulses. It’s what allows you to take a deep breath and respond calmly rather than lashing out.

Motivation describes the process of channeling emotion into action. It’s a critical element in sharpening your focus to achieve your goals.

Social skills describe how well you build and maintain relationships with others and your ability to make them feel heard and understood through your words and actions.

Empathy is the aspect of emotional intelligence that makes it possible to relate to other people’s experiences, or even experience their emotions by proxy. It allows nurses to walk a mile in the patient’s proverbial shoes and see things from their perspective.

Emotional intelligence and empathy are closely intertwined with one another, and both are essential for nurses to provide the best possible care to their patients. Nurses often find themselves in stressful situations and must be able to regulate their own emotions to remain clear-headed and make evidence-based care decisions. At the same time, staying attuned to their patients’ emotions helps nurses build connections and trust and serve as effective advocates for the people under their care.

The Impact of Emotional Intelligence and Empathy on Patient Care

Emotional intelligence can elevate the quality of care nurses provide by enabling more effective communication with their patients. Recognizing emotional and social cues makes it possible to put patients at ease, build rapport, and de-escalate tense situations that may arise when patients are frightened or uncomfortable. Forming connections with their patients also helps nurses and other providers fully understand a patient’s symptoms and perspective, which can lead to better-informed treatment decisions.

Even if a nurse isn’t able to immediately relieve a patient’s pain or anxiety, the simple act of listening and showing compassion can have a noticeable impact on a patient’s morale and overall condition. For example, taking the time to reassure a patient or explain details before a procedure they’re nervous about can help them feel more supported by their healthcare team. In turn, this can help people become more active and willing participants in their own treatment plans, ultimately leading to better outcomes and more satisfied patients.

Emotional Challenges Faced by Nurses

Several factors within healthcare environments can create challenges for nurses with every intention of practicing emotionally intelligent patient care.  Without proper self-care and support from their employer, it’s possible for nurses to experience compassion fatigue, burnout, and an overall sense of being emotionally drained. Staff shortages or heavy workloads can limit the amount of time nurses have to spend with each patient, handcuffing their ability to build genuine, empathetic connections. And if a facility’s workplace culture is lacking overall, it can demoralize well-meaning nurses and cause them to become callous over time.

Nurses who build healthy individual habits will be better equipped to manage these challenges and maintain their empathy for patients. Mindfulness, meditation, and peer support are all effective tools for nurses to strengthen their emotional intelligence. At the organizational level, healthcare facilities must support their staff through reasonable nurse-to-patient ratios, training programs, and leadership that prioritizes empathetic, compassionate care.

Close up of a nurse holding the hands of a patient

How to Manage Emotions in Nursing Practice

Nursing is a fulfilling profession, though it can also be an emotionally taxing one. Nurses tend to be selfless, caring people by nature, but that doesn’t mean they’re immune to the cumulative effects of a high-stress environment. While nurses get to see many of their patients make a promising recovery, most nurses will also witness loss, grief, and suffering throughout their careers.

Self-awareness and self-regulation are two of the most vital aspects of emotional intelligence for nurses to master. Nurses must be a calming influence in an occasionally chaotic environment and be able to keep their minds clear when they’re under pressure to perform. For most nurses, it’s a lifelong process of learning to observe one’s emotions, challenge irrational thoughts, and redirect negative feelings into constructive actions.

Like most parts of the body or brain, emotional resilience can be strengthened through consistency and intentional focus. Nurses can improve their self-awareness and emotional regulation skills through methods like journaling, mindfulness or breathing techniques, and lifestyle habits like exercise, a healthy diet, and quality sleep.

The Importance of Cultural Competence and Empathy

Nurses care for patients from all backgrounds and walks of life, and it’s important that they’re aware of the varying cultural norms, values, and communication styles they’ll encounter among different patients.

People from different cultural backgrounds can express emotions in numerous ways. Some cultures tend to view emotional restraint as a positive thing, while others are more open about outward displays in public. Different cultures may also have varying norms around tone of voice, eye contact, personal space, and other forms of communication.

Culturally competent nurses are aware of how a patient’s background could affect their experience without resorting to stereotypes or making assumptions. Practicing with empathy means treating each patient as an individual and paying close attention to how they communicate so nurses can “meet them where they are” and form more meaningful connections.

Training and Education in Emotional Intelligence and Empathy

While nursing education has traditionally focused largely on clinical skills and knowledge, emotional intelligence, and empathy are increasingly becoming part of the curriculum in many nursing programs. As we continue to learn more about the importance of mental and emotional health (and the impact they can make on physical health), these topics are gaining traction as a critical component of nurse training.

Nursing programs have implemented a number of effective learning tools to help nurses develop their empathy and emotional intelligence. Role-playing exercises, group discussions, and simulation-based training can all help nursing students develop their empathy and emotional intelligence, and practice regulating their own emotional responses.

Because the healthcare landscape and the world around us are constantly changing, learning about emotional intelligence is an ongoing process for nurses. Workshops, training sessions, and structured feedback from managers or mentors are all potential avenues for ongoing growth. For both individuals and healthcare organizations, staying proactive about continually developing emotional intelligence will pay dividends in the quality of care their patients receive.

The Role of Leadership in Promoting Emotional Intelligence and Empathy

The acting leadership in any healthcare facility can also have a profound impact on the empathy and emotional intelligence among nurses who work there. An emotionally attuned nurse supervisor who leads by example can be an excellent mentor and role model for others by modeling what empathetic patient care is supposed to look like.

Beyond the efforts of individuals, leadership teams at healthcare organizations must make a conscious decision to cultivate an environment that encourages emotional intelligence, both in patient care and in professional interactions between colleagues. Through regular training, open dialogue, and resources that help providers process the emotional difficulties of nursing, leadership can contribute to a collaborative, emotionally intelligent work culture that benefits both patients and employees.

Elderly man laughing with a smiling young nurse

Develop Your Nursing Skills (and People Skills) at Provo College

Nurses who practice with empathy and emotional intelligence can make an incredible difference for their patients by calming their fears, understanding their concerns, and building trust between patients and their healthcare team. At the same time, emotionally intelligent nurses will be better prepared to navigate the emotional rollercoaster that often comes with working in an occasionally high-stress healthcare environment.

Nursing programs that include training focused on emotional intelligence and empathy can give any nursing student a head start toward becoming a top-tier provider that makes patients feel safe, heard, and well cared for. In the Bachelor of Science in Nursing program at Provo College, you’ll learn from experienced nurses who have seen firsthand the power of emotional intelligence in connecting with patients. With an accelerated program that makes it possible to complete your degree within three years, you could be lifting patients’ spirits sooner than you might suspect.

Want to learn more about what it takes to achieve a fulfilling career in nursing? Check out our detailed guide with step-by-step instructions on how to become a registered nurse.