The Importance of Emotional Intelligence in Nursing

Over the course of an ordinary shift, every nurse might experience a conflict or two. Conflicts may come from differing opinions, a challenging family member, personality clashes and even just general stress. Dealing with conflict can be uncomfortable, but emotional intelligence is the key to remaining calm and achieving better outcomes.

Emotional intelligence improves communication so that nurses can cope more effectively with conflict. Most importantly, when nurses apply emotional intelligence, it leads to a better patient experience.

What Is Emotional Intelligence?

Stressful situations happen in every workplace. The message employees often get is to keep emotions in check. Though most would agree that bottling up emotions is not necessarily healthy. Emotional intelligence takes a different approach. And it has become a highly sought-after skill set with employers.

IQ (intelligence quotient) may influence how well people perform at work. But emotional intelligence may be a better measure of success.

Take nursing, for example. Whether RNs graduate with an associate degree or a bachelor's, they take the same exam. RNs with strong emotional intelligence can set themselves apart. 

There are many definitions of emotional intelligence. Writing for American Nurse Today, Estelle Codier discusses the Ability Model, based on the work of John Mayer and Peter Salovey. According to this model, EI involves:

  • Correctly identifying emotions in oneself and others
  • Using emotions to reason
  • Understanding emotions
  • Managing emotions

Putting these abilities together, the Institute for Health and Human Potential describes emotional intelligence as "being aware that emotions can drive our behavior and impact people (positively and negatively), and learning how to manage those emotions — both our own and others — especially when we are under pressure."

Why Is Emotional Intelligence Important in Nursing?

Emotional intelligence may be an RN's most valuable asset. Nurses have a variety of roles, and their daily activities may vary widely, but an RN's primary goal is to provide high-quality care. Empathy is a main ingredient.

In nursing, empathy plays an important role in establishing patient trust. A major benefit of this trust is that patients may be more likely to adhere to their care plan. Discussing the connection to emotional intelligence, one RN put it simply: "Without emotional intelligence, you can't have empathy."

Notably, emotional intelligence may also impact patient safety. In 1999, the Institute of Medicine (IOM), now the National Academy of Medicine, released its report, "To Err Is Human." The IOM reported that preventable medical errors were causing as many as 98,000 patient deaths in hospitals each year.

To put that in perspective, medical errors were causing more deaths than AIDS, breast cancer and motor vehicle accidents. Medical errors continue to be a leading cause of death. The most common cause? Communication failures.

Research links emotional intelligence to patient safety. In "A Model for the Role of Emotional Intelligence in Patient Safety," Estelle Codier, MSN, RN, and David Codier, BSN, RHSO, explain that communication and emotional intelligence are clearly linked. Because of this connection, EI has been called "one of the largest drivers of patient safety."

Studies show that nurses themselves benefit from improving their emotional intelligence. In "Emotional Intelligence: Why Walking the Talk Transforms Nursing Care," Estelle Codier summarizes findings of hundreds of studies that correlate emotional intelligence with:

  • Improved physical and emotional wellness
  • Improved retention
  • Lower levels of burnout

The studies also showed that the highest performers (nursing leadership and clinical practice roles) also have the highest emotional intelligence scores.

How Can RNs Boost Their Emotional Intelligence?

Developing emotional intelligence is similar to learning a clinical skill. Just as RNs can improve clinical skills such as IV insertion, they can boost their emotional intelligence with practice.

Here are a few suggestions for getting started.

  • Perform a simple self-assessment. Mind Tools offers a free, quick and easy basic assessment with score interpretation and tips for improving.
  • Take time for self-reflection following a challenging situation. Ask questions such as, "How did that go?" "How was I feeling?" "What made me feel that way?" "Was I able to listen without judging?" "Was I able to understand the other person's point of view?"
  • Try simple mindfulness techniques. Just a few slow breaths can reduce stress. "The Mindful Nurse" has more suggestions.
  • Learn and practice assertive communication. Writing for Nursing2020, Linda S. Smith, Ph.D., M.S., RN, CLNC, explains that this is "a nonthreatening way to communicate information, ideas, and beliefs."

Nursing is a stressful occupation. Rather than let stress impact the quality of care, emotionally intelligent RNs can check in with their own emotions before seeing patients so that stress does not get in the way of the patient relationship.

Emotional intelligence can also help RNs tackle tough conversations. As patient advocates, RNs may sometimes disagree with healthcare providers' decisions. However, fear of conflict may make it difficult to speak up. A high-level of emotional intelligence can equip nurses with the skills and confidence they need to communicate concerns and create mutually respectful relationships.

Emotional intelligence may seem like just another buzzword. But for RNs, it touches nearly every aspect of their work. From improving team function and patient outcomes to creating a healthier work environment, emotional intelligence can be a game-changer. A bonus? RNs with emotional intelligence may find they leave the stress behind when they head home.

According to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing, research shows that earning a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) strengthens professional skills for RNs with stronger professional-level skills. The University of New Mexico (UNM) offers an affordable online RN to BSN program that allows students to continue working while they earn their degree. Nurses graduate with the higher-level communication skills they need to increase emotional intelligence and advance their career. 

Learn more about UNM's online RN to BSN program.


American Nurse Today: Emotional Intelligence: Why Walking the Talk Transforms Nursing Care

Institute for Health and Human Potential: What Is Emotional Intelligence?

Institute of Medicine: To Err Is Human: Building a Safer Health System

NCBI: Your Health Care May Kill You: Medical Errors

NCBI: A Model for the Role of Emotional Intelligence in Patient Safety

Mind Tools: How Emotionally Intelligent Are You?

American Nurse Today: The Mindful Nurse

Nursing 2020: Cultural Competence - A Guide for Nursing Students

American Association of Colleges of Nursing: The Impact of Education on Nursing Practice

Interview with RN, December 15, 2019

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