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The three communication mistakes we all make

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Being able to communicate – with colleagues, patients, and their families – is an essential skill for any health professional. But are you as good at communicating as you think?

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Why communication matters 

Lloyd Allen, advanced communication skills lecturer practitioner at The Royal Marsden School, believes communication is crucial in healthcare. “You must be technically proficient as a nurse, but fundamentally you are working with patients. And to work with patients you have to learn how to communicate with them,” he says. So what are the three most common communication traps we can all fall into? 

We’re not actually listening 

“You might set out with an idea of what the patient wants before checking out that it is what they want,” says Lloyd. “By going into a conversation with an agenda, you’re not actually listening to what’s worrying them. This can make a patient feel as though you’re trying to ‘fob them off’ or ignoring their feelings.

“At the beginning of the conversation, ask them to tell you what they understand about their situation and what their concerns are. Once they have told you, summarise what you have heard and acknowledge their feelings. “This is often enough to build trust in you as a health professional.”

We become solution-focused 

Giving a patient bad news is one of the most challenging conversations you can have. But it’s critical to allow them time to react to that news. “If they become very upset, or angry, or start asking a lot of questions, we can feel as though we have to solve their problem.” 

Try not to go into ‘fix it’ mode straight away. Instead of speeding through the conversation in a bid to avoid making the situation feel worse (or even more uncomfortable for both of you) you need to stop, listen to their fears and make them feel validated. 

“Even if you don’t agree with their perspective, it is their perspective so it’s essential,” says Lloyd. “How we talk to patients is just as important as the treatment we give them.”

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We don’t practise empathy 

Empathy is the skill of being able to pick up on another person’s underlying emotions. But even if you’re not naturally skilled in this area, empathy is a skill you can learn through practice. “If patients get upset, or you can see something is difficult for them, tell them you get it. Say ‘I can see you’re very upset’ or ‘I know this isn’t easy for you’,” says Lloyd. 

Resist the urge to jump in to fill in any silences, and give your patient time to get their head around what you’re saying. Once you’ve slowed the conversation down in this way, they should be more receptive to talking about moving things forward. 

Lloyd says, “Again, find out what they need. You could ask, ‘What would be most useful for you right now? I’ve given you a lot of information, so would you like me to go over anything or give you some information to take away?’ This puts the patient back in control of the conversation and includes them in the decision-making process, instead of you leading them to the solution you want.”

How to improve your communication skills

The advanced communication skills training course offered by The Royal Marsden School is a two-day course for healthcare professionals. It’s based around interactive workshops and role-play, providing a safe environment for you to practise and develop communication techniques.

Find out more about this and other courses at or call us on 020 7808 2900

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