Nurse Keith: Nurses and Emotional Intelligence

Nurse Keith: Nurses and Emotional Intelligence

Emotional intelligence isn’t necessarily on the tip of every nurse’s tongue, but a nurse’s “EQ” (emotional quotient) can be just as important as his or her IQ. The idea of emotional intelligence (EI) has gained a great deal of ground; nurses can pay attention to the ways in which it can be leveraged for the improvement of patient care, professional relationships, career development, and nursing outcomes.

What is emotional intelligence?

The notion of emotional intelligence has been around since the 1960s, but it was popularized in the 1990s by author Daniel Goleman (with his seminal book, Emotional Intelligence) and the plethora of literature arising since that time.

Wikipedia defines emotional intelligence as “the ability to monitor one’s own and other people’s emotions, to discriminate between different emotions and label them appropriately and to use emotional information to guide thinking and behavior.” Although there are some arguments about the true definition—and the different potential types of EI—this definition serves well for the purposes of this article.

How can improved emotional intelligence benefit nurses and the work that they do? For nurses in clinical roles, emotional intelligence is useful in terms of the nurse-patient relationship, the development and expression of empathy and compassion, and the ability to relate to others in authentic, meaningful ways.

An emotional intelligence nursing case study

A nurse is faced with an extremely ill adult patient who is combative and receiving little support from a dysfunctional family. The patient is highly distressed, isolated from her normal routines, and resisting the restrictions of prolonged hospitalization.

The emotionally intelligent nurse connects with the patient through wisely timed conversations (following meals and the administration of anti-anxiety meds) and deep empathetic listening; the patient opens up about her distress, how much her dogs help her to stay calm, and shares openly about her life. Other nurses avoid the patient and label her as “difficult,” but the emotionally intelligent nurse sees through the exterior to the patient’s interior world.

Seeing the true origins of the patient’s combative behavior, the nurse meets with the social worker and formulates a plan for a distraught patient who feels trapped and isolated in an unfamiliar environment.

Wanting to provide holistic treatment, the nurse arranges visits from an emotional support dog, as well as Skype calls between the patient and her daughter. Between adjusted medications, the expression of empathy, and some creative solutions, the nurse assuages the patient’s loneliness and gives her a lifeline to cling to during the long days of hospitalization.

Solving problems with your EQ

While having a high IQ can indeed help solve problems, sometimes it’s the heart that’s needed, not solely the intellect. Emotional intelligence can give the nurse the capacity to both feel and think; creative solutions can sometimes come from a place of compassion, not just intellectual probing or a desire to “fix” something “broken.”

Developing your EQ is both possible and recommended; plenty of literature exists supporting the notion that compassion, empathy, and emotional intelligence can be taught and learned.

Consider both types of intelligence as equally important, and use them to improve and deepen patient care and your work as a nurse.

Keith Carlson, RN, BSN, NC-BC is a holistic career coach for nurses, award-winning nurse blogger, writer, podcaster, speaker, author, and popular career columnist for With two decades of nursing experience, Keith deeply understands the issues faced by 21st-century nurses. Keith’s two podcasts, RNFM Radio and The Nurse Keith Show, offer inspiration and practical support to nurses seeking to create meaningful, satisfying lives and careers. Keith’s message of savvy career management and professional satisfaction reaches tens of thousands of nurses worldwide. He can be found at

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