Conflict can arise in any career that interacts with the public, perhaps none more so than nursing. Nursing jobs require a certain level of conflict management. Every patient deserves the best quality of care you can give them, but sometimes you might find yourself working with uncooperative, frustrated or aggressive patients. Patients behaviour can be heavily influenced by factors such as fear, mental health disorders, medication and other issues.

It’s important to remind ourselves that nurses and patients are both only human. We all have different values, beliefs and expectations. Whether you have a job as an ICU nurse, RGN or A&E nurse, the chances are you'll come across a variety of tensions between nurses and patients. Part of the nursing recruitment process may involve giving examples of conflict resolution experience. Often, it’s easy to default to basic responses; insisting that you’re correct, rolling your eyes or shutting down the conversation. The priority when resolving conflict is to find a solution to the issue at hand – rather than focus on trying to shift your patient’s mindset entirely. Dealing with conflict effectively can help to build trust with your patient, and allow you to offer a better standard of care. Here is our (by no means exhaustive) guide to dealing with nurse-patient conflict.


This might seem like a no-brainer, but sometimes all it takes is a few extra breaths. Take the time to consider your response and assess the situation. You might have your own unconscious bias or internal stress that could easily impact how you deal with the patient. If you're working through a nursing agency, you might regularly change your working environment, leading to higher stress levels. Breath and leave your preconceptions behind you.

Be an active listener

You can demonstrate concern with your body language and verbal affirmations like “absolutely” and “sure”. Our personal assumptions and judgement can affect what we chose to hear when speaking with patients. Briefly paraphrasing what’s being said can show that you’re paying close attention. Ask the patient what they need? What would be their ideal outcome? As a Registered Nurse, an enormous part of your role will involve lending an ear to patients in their time of need.

See it through the patient’s eyes

Healthcare professionals can easily get desensitised to how daunting the experience can be for a patient, particularly in permanent nursing roles. Conflict can often stem from a patient’s fear or lack of understanding. Working as an A&E Nurse, for example, your patients may be frightened or confused. By trying to see the patient’s perspective, you might get a better idea of their situation.

Acknowledge the situation

Addressing that there is conflict is the first step to resolving it. Make your patient aware that you’re trying to find a middle ground, “Let’s see if we can get on the same page here”. Reassure your patient that you’ve heard what they have said.

Consider your body language

Your stance and body language can speak volumes when dealing with confrontation. Closed posture such as folded arms can come across as aggressive, so be mindful of this. Sometimes we don’t realise we’re doing it. Equally, with facial expressions, a furrowed brow is much more intimidating than a smile or neutral appearance.

Manage expectations and boundaries

If a patient is being aggressive, using inappropriate language, or manifesting their frustrations physically, set the boundaries. Stress that their behaviour is unacceptable and won’t be tolerated. Initiate steps toward moving forward, rather than leaving the interaction open-ended. Recap the conversation and establish what’s next, showing the patient that you’ve listened and that you’re trying to understand them.

There will always be conflict between nurses and patients. Use conflict as an opportunity to demonstrate empathy and professionalism and above all else, to maintain the highest quality of patient care. A career in nursing will strengthen your expertise across a number of areas, particularly soft skills. Your interaction with patients in a time of confrontation could make an enormous difference to their experience, and ultimately make them feel more comfortable in a time of distress.