Choice words: why language matters when talking to patients

How what you say can make your message more or less effective

How often have you thought about the words you use when having a conversation with a patient, and how your choice of words can affect the outcome of the encounter? 

Picture: iStock

Your overall approach, and the verbs, grammar and phrasing you use, can carry great significance. 

I hadn’t really thought about this until I came across work by University of Loughborough professor of social interaction Elizabeth Stokoe. 

Her analysis of conversations – the science of talk – provides illuminating, evidence-based suggestions of words that can help or hinder negotiations.  

Watch: Elizabeth Stokoe on the interactional 'nudge' – talking about talk


An example is how we frame requests. It has been found that if we ask whether someone ‘is willing to’ do something, it is more likely to secure their agreement than saying ‘would you be interested in?’ 

We know how important communication is for effective nursing and relationships with others, and that how we say things can influence others’ reactions. Appearance, facial expression, intonation and type of greeting all contribute to the opinion formed by one person about another. 


So when a nurse approaches a patient, not only will the nurse be assessing the patient and establishing rapport, the patient is likely to make a judgment about the nurse too, with language playing an important part in this.

Timing is another relevant factor. Professor Stokoe’s research shows conversations progress quickly with a typical gap of less than 1/10th of a second between speakers. A pause of 7/10th of a second in exchanges where someone is being asked to do something suggests ‘trouble’, and that the person is unlikely to agree to the proposition.  

Professor Stokoe’s analyses are from professional and workplace encounters, including healthcare. Her examples demonstrate how important it is to think about the way you approach every patient and how words, as well as phrases, and the way we frame questions can change behaviour.

Nurses frequently negotiate with patients over issues such as lifestyle changes, exercising, taking medication, and sometimes to diffuse aggression. It is fascinating, but not surprising, that choice of words can render an interaction more or less effective.

By using research such as this, and choosing our words carefully, nurses have the opportunity to help nudge patients in the right direction.  

Caroline Shuldham is chair of the RCNi editorial advisory board. A former nursing director, she is an independent adviser on research, teaching and mentoring



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