6.2 Relational Inquiry Approach to Communication

Learning Objectives

  • Define relational inquiry.
  • Explain the elements of relational inquiry.
  • Explain the purpose of using a relational inquiry approach in your practice area.

Relational inquiry is “the complex interplay of human life, the world, and nursing practice” (Doane & Varcoe, 2015, p. 3). This means that individuals working in health environments must avoid viewing clients on a merely individual level (Doane & Varcoe, 2021).  Doane and Varcoe (2021), note that drawing upon relational inquiry involves the following elements of communication:

  • Intrapersonal  — communicating with the client in a way that allows you to assess what is occurring within all people involved (the client, you, and others).
  • Interpersonal — communicating with the client in a way that allows you to assess what is occurring among and between all people involved, examine how they behave in the situation, and identify their priorities.
  • Contextual — communicating with the client in a way that allows you to assess what is occurring around the people and situation involved. This includes the “structures and forces influencing the situation and shaping the intrapersonal and interpersonal responses” (Doane & Varcoe, 2021, p. 3).

Relational inquiry is a lens you can use to perceive the world. In contrast to an individualist approach, which privileges the individual as accountable for their actions and behaviours, relational inquiry brings into focus the internal dialogue of the client, their social system, and the broader context that influences their actions and your actions as a health care provider (Doane & Varcoe, 2021). This approach to therapeutic communication is important because it can help you understand the client’s situation more fully, focus on what is important to them, and collaboratively work with the client to integrate this knowledge into care.

Case Study 2 (An example of a relational-inquiry approach during an interview)

An 8-year-old client, who uses the pronouns he/him, attends a pre-operative day surgery unit for tonsillectomy (tonsil removal) with a parent present. The client has a history of six strep throat infections with antibiotic treatment in the past 18 months. The client has no previous history of surgery or anesthesia.

RN: Hello, Peter Lin; my name is Ahsan Khan, and I am a registered nurse. I will care for you until you go into surgery; a surgical nurse will take over your care. You can call me Ahsan. What name would you like me to call you?

Client: Peter.

Rationale: You introduce yourself using your first and last name and explain your designation — this action promotes accountability. You explain the extent of the care being provided, including when it will end and who will take over care for the client at different stages of their procedure. This includes the client in the care plan and minimizes uncertainty about care provision.

RN: Okay, Peter. The information you share with me will only be shared with the healthcare team caring for you. Before we begin, who is with you today?

Client: It is my mom.

Rationale: You explain confidentiality at a developmentally appropriate level for an 8-year-old. Asking the client, “Who is with you today” allows the client to identify their relationship to their caregiver in their own words.

RN: [directed to mother] Hello, what would you me to call you?

Client’s mother: Please call me Wei.

Rationale: This approach includes the mother in the care and acknowledges her participation. Some providers refer to the parent generically as “mom” or “dad” as this reinforces the client (child) as the recipient of care and is also convenient for the provider for easy reference. However, calling the parent by their preferred name builds trust and rapport, acknowledges their humanity, and identifies them in the care process.

RN: Okay, Wei. [directed to both client and client’s mother] I will collect some information from you and then do a physical exam. It should take about 10 minutes. I can see in your chart here that you are scheduled for tonsil removal and that you have signed a consent form. Can I answer any questions you have before we proceed?

Rationale: Repeating the preferred name of the client’s mother helps you remember the name while acknowledging the mother’s request. You offer the client and mother a timeline and plan to help them anticipate events. You invite any questions before conducting the subjective data collection. This can be a helpful tool for you to gauge the client and can also alleviate concerns upfront.

Client and Client’s mother: Not really.

RN: Ok. Can you tell me how you are feeling today, Peter?

Rationale: This question invites an intrapersonal response as it attends to the feelings and emotions of the client. Most importantly, it acknowledges the importance of their thoughts and emotions as part of their care (rather than ignoring them) and allows you to respond to any concerns.

Client: A little nervous. Will I be able to feel anything during surgery?

RN: No, you will not feel anything during surgery. We will give you some medicine to put you into a deep sleep, and when you wake up, it will be over. We will also be giving you some medication for pain.

Rationale: Your response addresses the client’s concern by providing a definitive answer. In this case, you also anticipate the client’s concern for pain, as the concept may not be well understood, given the developmental stage.

RN: How are you feeling, Wei?

Client’s mother: I am a little nervous about giving Peter pain medications.

Rationale: The question invites the mother to share intrapersonal concerns about the client’s surgery. This gives the mother a family-centred approach, whereby they are also a care recipient.

RN: Tell me more about your concern.

Client’s mother: Well, you read so much nowadays about opioids and addiction problems caused by prescribed medications. I am worried about Peter.

Rationale: This approach invites discussion without supposition.

RN: I can understand your concern. The pain medications the anesthesiologist administers during the surgery are short-acting, only a few hours. The anesthesiologist will speak with you before the surgery, and you can ask more specific questions. After the surgery, the surgical nurse will ensure Peter is comfortable and likely give him medication for pain and swelling. You can continue this treatment when you are home with Peter. Acetaminophen and ibuprofen are over-the-counter medications, not opioids, nor are they addictive. The surgical nurse will give you specific instructions about discharge care and a handout. If you do not get this information, feel free to ask.

Rationale: In this case, you respond directly to the mother’s concern about pain medication while anticipating the plan of care and other points of interface with the health care system. This offers reassurance about future opportunities to ask and clarify concerns. Importantly, in addition to letting the mother know what to expect, you invite the mother to ask questions. This validates the mother’s concern and alleviates others if they do not provide information.

Client’s mother: Ok, that is reassuring. I have two kids home sick from school today with the flu. Will that be an issue for Peter?

RN: It could be. If possible, hand-washing and keeping some space from each other will be important to minimize the spread of germs. Peter will be more susceptible to getting sick after surgery.

Rationale: This explanation responds directly to the mother’s question and offers strategies to reduce the risk of the spread of germs. The response is also in everyday language, free from professional jargon.

Client’s mother: Oh boy, I will try.

RN: Tell me about your support system to help you manage at home.

Client’s mother: I have a good support system. My sister is helpful with the kids and is in town to give us a hand.

Rationale: In this case scenario, this question assesses interpersonal relations by asking about support systems for managing this situation.

RN: That sounds like helpful support. Are there other resources that would be helpful to you?

Rationale: This question helps assess contextual relations by identifying resources and issues requiring attention in this scenario. It invites further discussion about factors to consider in Peter’s care and sheds light on the context of the dyad.

Client’s mother: Well, this has all been challenging. I am transitioning jobs, so money is tight right now. I do not have extra room in the budget for a sitter. I am glad my sister is coming, but I do not know how long she can stay. My parents could help in a pinch, but they are getting older, and the kids are a lot for them to manage. And poor Peter has been sick so much lately. On the one hand, I am glad Peter will be getting the surgery to prevent other cases of strep throat, but I also feel bad that this is happening at such a stressful time for everyone. I am worried about the recovery time.

RN: I can see how that would be stressful. It is going to take a few days for Peter to recover. The important thing will be to avoid the spread of germs, as that could extend his recovery time. And you are right that this surgery should help reduce his risk of getting strep throat in the future. It sounds like you have some alternative ideas for support to help you manage the recovery.

Rationale: This response offers empathy and encouragement by acknowledging what the client’s mother and their support system have shared. It also offers strategies to minimize recovery time, which seems to be a concern identified by the mother.

Client’s mother: I do. Thanks.

Activity: Check Your Understanding

Key Takeaways

  • A relational care approach attends to the broader social context in which clients and their support systems are situated.
  • As a health professional, you should be aware of yourself and how you influence and are integrally connected to the client and the health care system.
  • This approach is a beneficial tool for family-centred care.
  • The relational inquiry approach requires skill and knowledge because it demands active listening and critical thinking.
  • Unlike closed-ended checklists, you cannot predict how the conversation will unfold.


After reading Case Study 2, reflect on the following questions:
  1. Identify which communication skills are involved in a relational inquiry approach.
  2. Explain why a relational inquiry approach is essential in your area of practice.
  3. Create a scenario for your practice area incorporating a relational practice approach to interviewing.



Doane, G., & Varcoe, C. (2015). How to nurse: Relational inquiry with individuals and families in changing health and health care contexts. Wolters Kluwer.

Doane, G., & Varcoe, C. (2021). How to nurse: Relational inquiry in action (2nd edition). Wolters Kluwer.

Attribution Statement

Content adapted, with editorial changes, from:​

Lapum, J., St.-Amant, O., Hughes, M., & Garmaise-Yee, J. (Eds.)(2020). Introduction to communication in nursing. Toronto Metropolitan University Pressbooks. https://pressbooks.library.ryerson.ca/communicationnursing/

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Professional Communication Skills for Health Studies Copyright © 2023 by Chute, A., Johnston, S., & Pawliuk, B. is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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