Your role in healthcare delivery means you will likely have to deal with patients during difficult times. They may feel angry, depressed, stressed, and afraid–sometimes all at once. This can lead to behavior that is challenging for you to handle.
While it’s impossible to avoid difficult patients, you can help de-escalate situations and take control with some simple techniques. The next time you have a challenging patient, consider taking these steps to calm the situation with empathy and professionalism.
Take a Step Back
Take a moment to determine if the patient is being difficult because of their experience beyond a terrible diagnosis. It is a perceived lack of attention from your care team? Could it be how you have communicated with that person? Sometimes, it is not simply bad news that drives difficult behavior.
Understanding the true origin of their responses can help you address concerns that can easily be remedied. So take a step back, take a deep breath, and consider the whole situation. Think about what you or your team are bringing to the experience that may be adding to the friction.
Be Proactive and Acknowledge the Tension
You can also manage and de-escalate difficult situations by taking a proactive approach with the patient. Acknowledge the tension you feel with the patient. Remain calm and avoid challenging their behavior. Create a healthy dialogue by accepting that things aren’t going well. For example, you can say, “We seem to have gotten off on the wrong foot,” or “I feel our communication is breaking down.” This is a healthy and proactive way to handle the situation.
You may be tempted to feel defensive and explain your perspective as a healthcare professional. But listening is often the best way to calm difficult patients. As much as you can, allow them time to explain why they are being difficult–to tell “their side of the story.” Enable them to express their needs. And ask about any previously unvoiced concerns.
Set Firm Boundaries
Setting boundaries about conduct may be necessary in some cases. Despite experiencing an emotional experience, patients in healthcare settings are expected to behave appropriately. So it is fair for you to remind a difficult patient that abusive language or other bad behavior will not be tolerated in this environment.
Doing so helps you to maintain professionalism, and firm boundaries get everyone on the same page. If a patient is using foul language or screaming, explain what is acceptable without challenging their emotions. For instance you can say, “To continue this conversation, you cannot use inappropriate language. If you continue to talk to me in such a way, we will have to end this conversation.”
Once boundaries are set, if the situation continues to escalate and doesn’t seem like it will improve, you can halt the consultation and resume when the patient has accepted those boundaries.
Deescalate Challenging Situations
Despite your best efforts, there will always be patients and family members you cannot win over or calm down. However, you can de-escalate situations to keep everyone safe, make patients feel heard, and maintain professionalism. The next time you have a patient that is difficult to deal with, give these tips a try!
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