7 Tips to Aid Communication with Non-Verbal Patients

nurse giving a high-fiving a patient
Written by
Laila Ighani
March 25, 2024

Table of Contents

“The registered nurse communicates effectively in all areas of practice.”

The American Nurses Association establishes effective communication as one of the Standards of Professional Performance. Providing safe, high-quality, and patient-centered healthcare largely depends on a nurse’s ability to communicate with patients and family members to address their concerns and needs and coordinate care with the rest of the healthcare team. 

This article addresses a particular type of communication: communication with non-verbal patients.

Types of Nursing Communication

There are two primary forms of communication: verbal and non-verbal communication. 

  • Verbal communication includes vocalizations or written words that convey meaning. A conversation between a nurse and a patient or written discharge instructions are both examples of verbal communication.
  • Non-verbal communication is transmitted without spoken words or written language. Non-verbal communication includes signs, symbols, colors, gestures, body language, and facial expressions. 

Importance of Nonverbal Communication in Nursing

Although some nurse-patient interactions require non-verbal communication, this type of communication is indispensable in all interactions and can even be more impactful than the message itself. In fact, non-verbal communication constitutes approximately 80 percent of all communication. The percentages of 55, 38, and 7 have also been proposed to explain the importance of non-verbal communication, where body language constitutes 55 percent of communication, tone of voice 38 percent, and spoken words 7 percent.

Non-verbal communication is especially important with patients who cannot use verbal communication. Patients’ inability to communicate their needs to their caregivers and nurses can lead to high levels of frustration, depression, stress, and anxiety.

Therapeutic Communication Techniques in Nursing

Therapeutic communication offers numerous benefits. It increases the accuracy of a nursing diagnosis, helps identify the patient’s emotions and determine the best therapeutic measure, facilitates collaborative decision-making with patients, and improves the identification of the patient’s perceptions and concerns around diagnosis and treatment options. 

The following are some therapeutic communication techniques that can be useful with non-verbal patients:

  • Acceptance: Although you may disagree with what a patient is expressing, you can acknowledge and validate their feelings and experiences. Nurses can show acceptance by simply making eye contact and letting the patient know they are being seen and heard.
  • Clarification: A common active listening technique, clarification asks the patient to explain further what they are communicating to ensure nurses understand what the patient is expressing. With non-verbal patients, this may include pointing to parts of the body or images indicating emotions or levels of pain.
  • Paraphrasing: Rephrasing what the patient expressed can help nurses clarify the message and allow the patient, a family member, or an interpreter to provide additional information.
  • Making observations: This technique, which includes making observations about patients’ appearance, demeanor, or behavior, is particularly important with non-verbal patients because it allows them to confirm or negate the nurse’s observations with a nod or head shake.

Tips for Effective Communication with Non-Verbal Patients

Effective communication implies an exchange of information understood by the receiver. To communicate effectively, nurses must evaluate the patient’s preferred method of communication and individual characteristics that may impact communication and adapt communication to the patient’s needs. Therefore, nurses must cater their communication techniques to a patient’s particular needs and situation. For example, the methods for non verbal communication that will be useful with critically ill patients in an intensive care unit (ICU) will not be the same as those required with a patient with nonverbal autism. 

1. Remember SOLER

The mnemonic SOLER stands for “sit with open posture and lean in with good eye contact in a relaxed manner.” This technique facilitates effective communication because it not only helps the patient feel comfortable but also enables the patient to read lips if they have impaired hearing. Nurses must face the patient directly while they are talking and maintain eye contact.

2. Utilize Props

Props, such as dolls or stuffed animals, are especially useful with children. Nurses can demonstrate what will be done during a procedure by using one of these objects. Toys also help children feel more at ease, an essential objective of therapeutic communication.

3. Minimize Background Noise

Communicating with patients in a quiet area or simply closing the door to minimize background noise can go a long way in improving communication. This precaution will allow hearing aids to function more effectively and help patients with sensory sensitivities feel more comfortable and focused. 

4. Employ All Possible Aides or Supports 

Does the patient use sign language? Get an interpreter. Does a family member routinely communicate with the patient? Ensure they are in the room. Would the patient benefit from a hearing aid or assistive listening device? Help them acquire one. Also, consider using a writing tablet, flashcards, eye blinking, a communication board with pictures and letters, hand signals, gestures, computers, or mobile devices.

5. Speak Simply, Clearly, and Slowly

Healthcare professionals should avoid using medical jargon and slang with all their patients. However, this awareness of language becomes even more critical with non-verbal patients. Certain communication disorders, such as aphasia, can impair a patient’s expression and understanding of language. 

6. Ask “Yes” or “No” Questions

Although we could have included this tip with the previous one, it deserves its own mention. Asking open-ended questions is an excellent technique to employ with verbal patients but not with non-verbal patients. For example, patients with Broca’s aphasia often understand speech and know what they want to say but can only speak in short phrases and with great effort. Furthermore, they are often aware of and frustrated by their difficulties. “Yes” or “no” questions allow patients to answer with a nod or a single word, avoiding frustration and miscommunication. 

7. Be Creative and Resourceful

There is no doubt that communicating in healthcare is challenging. You could read a list of 100 tips to communicate with non-verbal patients, but you would never be able to cover all possible scenarios. Therefore, you must optimize the resources you have at your disposal and think outside the box. Be observant to identify communication obstacles and potential problems and brainstorm possible solutions. Don’t forget to include colleagues as resources. They may have experience working with patients with a particular condition and be able to offer advice or direct support.

Communication Is One Piece of the Puzzle

Effective communication is undoubtedly an essential piece of the puzzle that makes up a nurse’s role. However, it is still just one piece of the puzzle. Are you ready to move on to the next piece? Learn How to Build Trust for Better Nurse-Patient Relationships.

Sources:

Blog published on:
March 25, 2024

Laila is a contributing copywriter and editor at Nursa who specializes in writing compelling long-form content about nursing finances, per diem job locations, areas of specialization, guides, and resources that help nurses navigate their career paths.

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