When you decided to work in healthcare, you probably realized that you’d have to be calm and nurturing as much as possible. But did you understand how important a mastery of interpersonal skills would be?
Being able to communicate, understand and articulate your own needs are all central tenets of soft skills, which play a crucial role in your interactions with patients and other members of the care team, even if you don’t realize it.
What’s more, soft skills (or a lack thereof) are often at the root of common medical errors, says Beth Boynton, RN, who’s authored multiple books on communication in healthcare settings. Why? Educational programs and workplaces don’t always highlight the value of soft skills, Boynton says, so it’s important for clinicians to learn about and develop them on their own.
What are soft skills?
Soft skills, also known as relational skills, are those that help you interact with other people in a harmonious way. Successful soft skills don’t necessarily mean you avoid conflict, but they allow you to address conflict through problem-solving rather than power struggles, Boynton explains. In addition to relating to others, soft skills also include your ability to understand yourself, your own needs and speak up when they’re not being met.
Important soft skills in healthcare include:
- Communication. Because 80 to 90 percent of communication is nonverbal, successful soft skills require an awareness of how your physical presence and tone of voice affect people.
- Listening. To listen well, you must suspend what you believe to be true when someone is explaining their point of view to you, Boynton says.
- Empathy. You must understand the feelings and needs of patients in order to give them the best care possible. You should be attentive to your colleagues’ emotional states, as well, to promote teamwork.
- Leadership and followship. Clinicians, regardless of their status, need to recognize when they should take initiative versus defer to others and switch smoothly between the two.
- Patience. Confusion and waiting are par for the course when dealing with patient care. At these times, it’s important to let go of the frustration and think about what value you’re bringing to the patient’s life.
- Self-awareness. You can’t effectively communicate without understand yourself and what you need from a given situation.
- Motivation. Motivating yourself to get out of bed every day, in spite of the suffering you see, is a huge part of the job, as is encouraging others on your care team to be their best selves.
Why are soft skills important in healthcare?
The two primary reasons employers and employees alike should value soft skills, Boynton says. The first is to improve patients’ experience and safety.
Naturally, a nurse being able to identify when a patient is upset and to respond accordingly will improve that patient’s experience. But, Boynton adds, soft skills play a more complicated role at healthcare facilities, too.
“Look at the root causes of sentinel events,” she explains. “The root causes are all communication, leadership — human factors, and we’re not making significant improvements.”
The second reason soft skills are important in healthcare is that they reduce burnout. Why? Without self-awareness it’s difficult to treat burnout or even know when it’s happening. Not to mention, discomfort with speaking up can lead to clinicians hurting themselves.
“You need to be able to ask for help when you need it and know when you’re taking a risk you shouldn’t,” Boynton says.
How can you assess your soft skills?
Boynton recommends asking yourself a few questions to assess how your soft skills affect your work:
- Are you getting in a lot of power struggles?
- Are you getting negative feedback from patients or colleagues?
- How do you handle conflict? Are you able to see someone else’s point of view and express your own? Do you address conflict only when it’s appropriate?
- Are you able to be a leader and a follower? Can you switch between the two?
- If you’re upset, can you take a deep breath, calm down and keep working? Can you identify the source of your feelings?
How can you improve your soft skills?
For individuals, Boynton says improving your soft skills starts with:
- Educating yourself. Read about them and learn what they are.
- Consider psychotherapy. This process helps you glean a better understanding of yourself and your needs.
- Join an improv class. Boynton, who teaches communication skills through improv class, recommends this because it teaches you to get comfortable speaking up.
- Take care of yourself. “That’s fundamental,” Boynton says. “Do things for yourself and appreciate yourself. To have soft skills, you must respect yourself.”
For healthcare leaders or administrators looking to improve soft skills of their workforce, Boynton recommends:
- Establish coaching relationships. Encourage team members to work together to improve their soft skills. Just make sure the partnerships are between people who understand each other.
- Introduce group sessions of experiential learning. This looks like a safe environment with a knowledgeable facilitator, who encourages the growth of soft skills with fun activities. In these settings, you want people to feel they won’t be judged, shamed or humiliated so they can take the risk of sharing an idea.
The Importance of Soft Skills in the Healthcare Profession, iCIMS.
Last updated on 10/8/19.