What You Meant and What the Patient Hears

Posted by Kristin Baird on May 30th, 2017 • No Comments »

Most of us have had at least one experience where our words have been misinterpreted by another leading to hurt feelings, anger, and even fractured relationships. While it’s always important to choose your words wisely, it’s particularly important when speaking with patients and their family members. After all, they are often under stress, feeling vulnerable and frightened. Good communication is essential.

Good communication is the backbone of a trusting relationship. The words, the tone and the body language have to match in order to have credibility. Here are a few common examples where intentions and interpretation are miles apart.

What you say What you meant What they hear/ think
“You’re not my patient.” Because I haven’t been assigned to you, I’m not as familiar with your history and orders as I need to be in order to answer your questions. You’re not my responsibility so I don’t care.
“Why are you here?” What is the main concern on your mind today? I feel like this is an accusation or attack. Or…

I just told the nurse all about my situation. Don’t you people talk to each other?

“We are short staffed.” Please know that I will get back to you as soon as I can. Uh oh. They don’t have enough staff. They are too busy for me. The care is probably going to be really poor.


I could write a book on just the experiences my sister has shared with me over the past 18 months while she has been inpatient or in subacute care. Her battle with complications including three bouts of sepsis after a major surgery have placed her in the care of others for even the most basic activities of daily living. When I told her I was writing on this subject she shared a few of the comments made to her by caregivers. The most appalling one was a nursing assistant who said, “If I were you, I would have killed myself months ago.” I want to give the benefit of the doubt here about her intentions. Perhaps she meant, “You’ve suffered so much. I don’t know how you stay so strong.” But what my sister heard was, “In the shape you’re in; life isn’t worth living.”

Filter before you speak. Think about how other people receive the message. The other thing to consider is body language. There’s nothing I hate more than feeling like someone is reading off of a script with no consideration of my unique situation. Remember that only 7% of communication is verbal. The rest is tone and body language. Imagine a nurse looking at her watch while reaching for the door handle and saying, “Is there anything else I can do for you? I have time.”  The actions speak 10 times louder than the words.

If you don’t want to be misinterpreted in your patient communication, start with mindfulness. By being fully present, you will reduce the chance for miscommunication. Slow down. Empathize. Then choose your words wisely.

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Baird Consulting

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