An often overlooked and under-valued quality, emotional intelligence (or EQ) has begun in recent years to be recognized as an invaluable asset in a workforce which deals directly with the public. In the field of nursing especially, and indeed medicine in general, emotional intelligence is an essential characteristic which enables medical professionals to excel in patient care. In a digital age where interpersonal human contact relies less and less on face-to-face conversation and interaction, the ability to intuit and discern emotions, be they our own or those of another, has become a rare and invaluable tool. And as a nurse, this tool may prove to be life-saving while in the line of work.

What Is Emotional Intelligence?

The essential characteristics of emotional intelligence are:

  • Self-awareness
  • Self-regulation
  • Self-motivation
  • Social awareness
  • Social skills

Basically, emotional intelligence is the ability to sense and name feelings and emotions, and deal or interact with them accordingly. Another word for this ability might be “compassion,” or “empathy.”

As a more complex concept, the term “emotional intelligence” originated over twenty years ago, and describes the capability of an individual to discern, evaluate, control, and handle their own emotions or the emotions of others. As a nurse, this might mean listening carefully to a patient, analyzing their body language for emotional cues, and acting accordingly to maximize their comfort and satisfaction with their treatment. Additionally this may look like acknowledging and controlling your own feelings in an emotionally difficult situation, such as when dealing with a combative patient or relative.

Far from a silent and internal operation, emotional intelligence enables nurses to communicate effectively with a wide range of individuals from myriad backgrounds and levels of medical understanding, from doctors, to fellow nurses, to patients, to family members.

Why Nurses Need Emotional Intelligence

Florence Nightingale may be the pinnacle of a stereotypical nurse. When we say her name, we evoke images of ultimate compassion and self-sacrifice for the good of the patient and the world. Nurses have difficult, highly emotional careers which require them to think (and feel) on their feet. Miss Nightingale provides us with a gleaming, if simplistic, illustration of the fact of nursing as a career choice which requires feeling and empathy as much as medical knowledge.

Nurses are on the front line of patient interaction in any clinic or hospital. They are medical professionals, caretakers, and hosts all rolled up in one. Emotional intelligence can enable a nurse to build a better rapport with patients, which will improve their hospital experience and help them feel well cared for. Intuiting and respectfully interacting with the feelings of a patient builds trust, and helps you as the nurse to do your job more efficiently and with greater success.

Emotional intelligence not only allows for better patient care, but also for better self-care. For example, if a patient is lashing out, and you are able to see that they are in pain, you will be far less likely to take their combativeness personally.

As we’ve established, nursing is a highly emotional career, and being aware of your own feelings when they come up is key to effective self-care. Interacting with patients can cause overwhelming joy, or deep sadness, and these fluctuations can be utterly exhausting. The ability to deal with these feelings, take breaks, and ask for help when you need it is another example of good emotional intelligence that nurses should practice.

Can Your Emotional Intelligence Be Improved?

Absolutely. Just like a muscle, with a little bit of practice and persistence, emotional intelligence can be increased and refined. Here are a few steps to follow in order to improve your EQ:

  1. Assess your emotional intelligence. If you are already highly emotionally intelligent, you probably practice these 5 habits on a regular basis:- Self awareness: you keep good track of your own feelings, and are generally aware of how you affect other people with your presence.- Empathy: you put yourself in other people’s shoes, and you have compassion for their unique experience. – Flexibility: you go with the flow, and do not allow yourself to be tripped up by a change in plans. – Interpersonal curiosity: you listen to others.- Healthy emotional boundaries: you recognize when a situation or interaction is uncomfortable, and you ask for help when you need it. Notice which of these habits you already practice, and see which areas may need improvement.
  2. Don’t resign yourself. Avoid saying, “this is just the way I am,” and instead recognize that you are fully capable of adopting any positive habits that may improve your patient care, and professional life.
  3. Look for opportunities to change your perspective. Whether dealing with a difficult patient, a coworker, or even a supervisor, imagine (or even ask) how they feel, and remember not to take anything they say or do personally.
  4. Take care of yourself. As always, be aware of your own boundaries and capabilities. Never compromise your own health and safety for the sake of others, and take space or ask for help whenever you need it. Have compassion for yourself, as much as your patients.

The importance of emotional intelligence in nursing cannot be understated. In order to give and maintain excellent patient care, as well as care for yourself, it is vital that you develop a high EQ. You patients, your teammates, and your own limbic system will thank you.

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