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Learn how curiosity and questioning helps to develop your critical inquiry skills as a nurse

Learn how curiosity and questioning help to develop your critical inquiry skills as a nurse?

In this blog post, I wanted to write about how learning to be curious and ask questions can help you to develop your critical inquiry skills as a nurse. Being curious and asking questions as a nurse improves patient care. There is plenty of nursing evidence to support this. Yet how our questions are received can make a huge difference to our professional growth and confidence.

I am a huge fan of Brene Brown, I particularly like the way that she makes research easy to understand. Brene applies her research to everyday examples from her own life and the lives of others. I love the honesty in her writing and the way that she gives examples of where she hasn’t always got it right.

I received a copy of Brene’s new book “Atlas of the Heart’ just after New Year, and couldn’t wait to start to read it!

There is a section in her new book where she writes about curiosity and interest, which I could really relate to. This quote from her new book particularly resonated with me.

“Choosing to be curious is choosing to be vulnerable because it requires us to surrender to uncertainty. We have to ask questions, admit to not knowing, risk being told that we shouldn’t be asking, and sometimes, make discoveries that lead to discomfort.”

Brene Brown

Reflection point

I would like to invite you for a moment to pause and reflect a little on a time when you might have asked someone more experienced than you a question. Their answer might have been along the lines of “you should know the answer, you’re a nurse.” How did this response make you feel?

Broadly speaking there are three kinds of groups when it comes to helping nurses learn through curiosity and inquiry.

  1. The first group are nurses who think that as a qualified nurse you should know the answers even if you are newly qualified. This attitude is almost like a rite of passage. This group may believe that this is how they had to learn by being thrown in the deep end and it is no different for you.
  2. The second group are those who remember how hard it was when they qualified and are more than happy to support and nurture new staff. They are aware that the next generation of nurses doesn’t have to suffer the pain of the get on with it approach.
  3. Lastly, there are a group of nurses that sit in the middle, a combination of both groups.

Curiosity as a child

Children are full of curiosity and are always asking ‘why’ questions. This can be exhausting trying to answers these questions in a way that is age-appropriate. Curiosity is how we all learn as children to make sense of the world that we live in.

Sometimes as children, we can learn that curiosity can be a bad thing. People might be irritated with us for asking too many questions, or be too busy to answer. Our self-protection mechanism might be to shut down and not ask any more questions.

As adults, we might have had an unpleasant experience asking questions at work that was not well received. This might prevent us from asking questions again for fear of being made to look foolish.

Patient care and clinical inquiry

Neither of these two examples serves us well as nurses. We are often the ones who see the patients more than any other member of the multi-disciplinary health care team. If we notice something is not right or we find ourselves questioning something about a patient’s care, we are usually right.  Very often nurses are the ones who pick up on changes and by asking questions are able to alert others to their clinical concerns. This is hugely important in preventing clinical incidents from occurring.

Brene explains that in being curious, you are recognising that there is something that you don’t know or fully understand. This curiosity sparks your interest to learn more about the thing that you don’t know or understand.

Let’s think for a moment about a time when you have taken on a new role in a new area. There is a lot of information that you don’t know. In order to learn you need to ask questions of people in your team who have experience in that particular area. Your experience might have been a positive one in that people were willing to help you. It might also be the case that someone might not have been receptive to your questions.

Being Vulnerable

The vulnerability that Brene references in her quote is in part due to you not knowing how the person you want to ask might respond. Asking a question makes you feel vulnerable because you are acknowledging that you don’t know something. If asking the question isn’t met with a positive response this can increase your feelings of discomfort and might also deter you from asking any more questions. Fear can be a powerful mechanism that prevents clinical inquiry.

Critical thinking and Inquiry

Critical thinking and inquiry in nursing are the most important skills that you can learn in your career. It doesn’t matter if you are a student or an experienced nurse. Critical thinking and inquiry can help you to better understand yourself and provide better care for your patients.

How do you decide who to approach?

In order to help you decide who to approach to ask your question, you need to find and be able to recognise a professional generous person.

Joanne Disch defines professional generosity as;

“Freely sharing one’s expertise or knowledge with another. It suggests a spirit of willingness, openhandedness, magnanimity and collegiality. People who are professionally generous are benevolent.”

Joanne Disch

What does professional generosity look like in practice? A professionally generous person is Someone who is;

  • Approachable, open warm style of communication
  • Smiles
  • Willing to listen, even when they are busy
  • Is open to being asked questions
  • Is willing to help and provide practical solutions
  • Gives constructive feedback
  • Provides practical advice
  • Understands where the person is at
  • Provides compliments for a job well done
  • Says thank you with sincerity and often

When you are new to a clinical area, be an observer of people for a while. Watch how the other nurses interact. Who are the experienced nurses that are approachable and have a friendly and open style of communication? Who do the other nurses go to to ask questions? Make a mental note to remember to ask these nurses if you need clarification or advice about something.

How to ask your question or seek clarification

So how do you approach someone if you don’t know something or if you are unsure about an aspect of patient care? Maybe you don’t understand why something is being done a certain way.

Before you ask, take a deep breath and formulate how you are going to ask the question in your mind. Always ask the question respectfully and address the person by name. Here are some examples of the kinds of questions you can ask;

  1. Please can you clarify then insert your question followed by the person’s name
  2. I’m not clear about then insert what it is that you are not clear about succinctly, don’t waffle
  3. Can you please explain to me your rationale for insert your response
  4. Please can you help me to better understand insert the question

Remember that there are no such things as silly questions. Many people feel that their question is a silly one and never ask only to hear someone else ask the question. Questioning leads to learning and growth. If your questions are not well received, find someone who will help you to learn and grow by answering your questions in a way that supports your learning.

” Persistent questioning and healthy inquisitiveness are the first requisite for acquiring learning of any kind”

Mahatma Gandhi

Are you struggling with a lack of confidence at work? Are you afraid of asking questions because you might appear foolish? I can help you to learn how to feel more confident in your role and your ability to ask questions. Contact me here for an informal chat about how coaching can help you


About the Author

Eva is a Registered Nurse and a professional Coach. She has 41 years of international nursing experience. She has held senior nursing positions in the UK, Qatar, and Perth, Western Australia.

Eva is passionate about two things, making coaching accessible to nurses and helping nurses who are newly- promoted into a leadership position to navigate the often difficult transition from great clinical nurse to a great nurse leader.

Eva is passionate about helping nurses navigate this transition, as often new nurse leaders suffer from imposter syndrome and don’t know what they don’t know.

Eva writes blog posts that speak to new nurse leaders or nurses who are aspiring to become nurse leaders and shares practical wisdom and tool to help them develop their leadership tool box