As a healthcare professional, you probably deal with difficult patients on a daily basis. 

Patients can be difficult for a number of reasons. Maybe they’re dissatisfied with a diagnosis you’ve given them, anxious about their appointment, frustrated about having to wait to see you, or simply an angry person overall. 

When dealing with difficult patients, it’s important to remember that you can’t control their behavior — you can only control your own. By following these tips, you can de-escalate difficult patient encounters and maintain your professionalism throughout. 

How To Deal With a Difficult Patient: Step by Step

When a patient yells at you or becomes heated, it’s easy to let your own emotions take over. Instead, try sticking to this step-by-step procedure for dealing with difficult patients: 

1. Stay Calm

When patients become angry or heated, the last thing you want to do is reflect their negative emotions. Doing so will only escalate the situation and turn a difficult patient encounter into a potentially unsafe situation. 

Instead, focus on staying calm. Getting riled up could cause you to say something you regret. 

Take a Deep Breath

If you’re having trouble remaining calm, try taking a few deep breaths. Doing so can lower your blood pressure, helping you feel more in control of your reactions. 

Commit this breathing exercise to memory, and try it out the next time you encounter a challenging patient:

  1. Breathe in for five counts.
  2. Hold for five counts.
  3. Breathe out for five counts.
  4. Hold for five counts.

This technique, known as “box breathing,” can promote mental health and lower your heart rate, helping you feel calmer. 

2. Listen to the Patient

Patients sometimes become upset with their healthcare providers because they feel like they aren’t being listened to. Maybe they came to you with a concern, and your response made them feel like you were brushing their issue aside. Or perhaps they wanted you to prescribe a certain treatment, but you went a different route. 

When a patient becomes angry or upset, take the time to listen to their concern — even if you think they are overreacting. 

Active listening involves paying close attention to what the patient is saying, using open body language, and showing that you understand. Practice these active listening tips to use the next time you have an encounter with a dissatisfied patient: 

  • Maintain eye contact.
  • Angle your body toward the patient.
  • Don’t interrupt. 
  • Control your facial expressions.
  • Rephrase what the patient said to show that you were listening. 
  • Ask open-ended questions, such as “What can I do to help you feel better about this?” or “How would you like to proceed?” 

By showing that you are actively listening to a patient’s concern, the angry patient can be assured that you will try to help. They won’t feel like you’re ignoring them or brushing their feelings aside. 

3. Be Empathetic

While you may see 10 patients a day, for your patients, coming to your office is a big deal. They may arrive with a pressing concern about their health that is causing anxiety and fear. They may have generalized phobias about seeing a doctor or nurse, causing them to be on edge from the moment they walk into your office. 

Understand that a patient’s negative behavior may not be targeted at you; instead, it could just be the result of underlying stress and anxiety about the appointment. Try to display empathy as you interact with these difficult patients. Doing so can help you avoid becoming angry when patients are rude to you. 

Showing empathy is even more crucial when you’re delivering bad news to a patient. It’s easy to become dissociated from your job and view your patients as just another number on the list. But the diagnoses you give patients could completely change their lives, and you should try to imagine how they’re feeling when you share bad news with them. 

Acknowledge the Patient’s Feelings

One active way to display empathy within patient communications is to acknowledge your patient’s feelings. You can use language like:

  • “Tell me what’s going through your mind right now.”
  • “I can see how you would be feeling angry or frustrated at this news.” 
  • “A lot of patients feel nervous about these appointments, but they’re really no big deal.” 

Considering your patient’s perspective and acknowledging the emotions they are feeling can help the patient calm down and understand that you’re on their side. 

4. Set Boundaries

Some patients can’t be assuaged; they just want to vent their frustration. In these cases, it’s best to set clear boundaries and establish that you are still in control of the situation. 

Manipulative patients may try to coerce you into giving them something that goes against your professional opinion. Of course, you shouldn’t give in to their demands. Instead, be firm about what you will and will not do for them, then provide them the contact of a higher-up healthcare professional they can communicate with if they have further questions or comments. 

But sometimes, patients cross boundaries out of fear or anxiety. They may send you excessive emails or text messages with concerns about their symptoms. They may schedule frequent, unnecessary appointments and seek reassurance that there is nothing wrong with them. 

With these patients, you can set boundaries by being upfront about the amount of time you have to dedicate to their appointment and providing clear communication about any health issues they’re actually experiencing. Use language such as “It seems like you are concerned about these symptoms, but I want to reassure you that I have found no evidence of a medical condition that you should be worried about.” 

5. Be Professional

Dealing with difficult patients may feel like arguing with a stubborn child. But remember — you’re the professional in this difficult interaction. Avoid letting your emotions get the better of you and focus on maintaining professional communication with the difficult person.

Follow these tips to maintain your professionalism during a difficult situation:

  • Speak calmly and directly.
  • Avoid matching the patient’s negative emotions.
  • Step away from the situation to regain your composure if necessary. 
  • Be clear about what you can and cannot do for the patient. 
  • End the encounter if it’s no longer productive. 


Apologize If Necessary

Staying professional through every challenging situation isn’t easy. Even though you’re a physician or a nurse, you’re still human.

If you said the wrong thing or let your anger show during the difficult encounter, don’t hesitate to apologize to the patient, either in the moment or after the fact. An apology can go a long way toward restoring your professional relationship and improving the patient experience. 

You may want to apologize even if you think you did nothing wrong. Sometimes difficult patients just want to hear that they are right and you are wrong, even if you don’t feel that way. A simple apology could save you a lot of stress when that patient returns for their next appointment. 

6. Get Help If Needed

You can only do so much when managing difficult patients. If a patient’s difficult behavior turns violent or dangerous, call security to assist you. You don’t need to stay in an unsafe environment just for the sake of patient satisfaction. 

Even if a patient isn’t being violent, you may need help from another health professional to de-escalate the situation or get your message across. A patient may have vendetta against you, albeit unwarranted, and bringing another nurse or doctor into the room could help them see the situation more clearly. 

Other Tips For Dealing With Difficult Patients

Prepare for your next difficult patient interaction by reviewing these tips: 

7. Don’t Take It Personally & Never Argue

It’s easy to think that something you did wrong caused a patient to display bad behavior. A patient may even directly blame you for their anger or frustration. But you just can’t take a patient’s behavior personally. 

Whether you’re a patient’s daily nurse or seeing them once for an X-ray, patients can become upset for any number of reasons that don’t even involve you. Try not to let it get to you — just focus on doing your job. 

Also, avoid arguing with a patient. Doing so can come off as unprofessional and only serve to fuel the patient’s frustration. Even if you know you’re right and the patient is wrong, arguing probably won’t be productive. 

8. Offer Solutions

As part of your active listening process, think of solutions that could help mitigate a patient’s concerns. Presenting these solutions, even if the patient doesn’t take you up on them, can show that you’re on the patient’s side and are doing everything you can to help them. 

For example, if a patient feels anxious about an upcoming procedure and is taking their stress out on you, present solutions to calm their nerves. These solutions may include letting them listen to their favorite music during the procedure or squeezing a stress ball. If a patient doesn’t like the diagnosis you gave them, offer to refer them to a different healthcare provider for a second opinion. 

9. Follow Up With Challenging Patients

You may never want to talk to a demanding patient again after they leave your office. But following up about their diagnosis or procedure is an effective way to “be the bigger person” and further de-escalate any challenging emotions they may be holding on to.

Patients can be difficult, but they still deserve respect. Following these tips for dealing with difficult patients at your nursing job can help you navigate challenging interactions in a healthy way while still providing the best patient care possible. 

Are you looking for a way to improve patient care and communications? Request your free Weave demo today.

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