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Five Things You Didn’t Know About the Importance of Soft Skills

Ask yourself these five questions to assess the strength of your soft skills.

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 vital a mastery of interpersonal skills would be? Communicating, understanding, and articulating your own needs are all central tenets of soft skills, which play a crucial role in your interactions with patients and other care team members, 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? Boynton says that educational programs and workplaces don’t always highlight the value of soft skills, so it’s essential for clinicians to learn about and develop them on their own.

What are soft skills?

Soft skills, also known as relational skills, help you harmonize with other people. 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 and your own needs and speak up when they’re not being met.

Critical 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 explains their point of view to you, Boynton says.
  • Empathy: You must understand the feelings and needs of patients to give them the best care possible. You should be attentive to your colleagues’ emotional states, as well, to promote teamwork.
  • Leadership and followership: Clinicians must recognize when they should take the initiative versus defer to others and switch smoothly between the two, regardless of their status.
  • Patience: Confusion and waiting are par for the course when dealing with patient care. At these times, it’s essential to let go of the frustration and consider what value you bring to the patient’s life.
  • Self-awareness: You can’t effectively communicate without understanding yourself and what you need from a given situation.
  • Motivation: Motivating yourself to get out of bed every day, despite the suffering you see, is a massive part of the job, as is encouraging others on your care team to be their best selves.

Why are soft skills necessary in healthcare?

Boynton says two primary reasons employers and employees value soft skills. The first is to improve patients’ experience and safety. So naturally, a nurse can identify when a patient is upset and respond accordingly will enhance that patient’s experience. But, Boynton adds, soft skills also play a more complicated role at healthcare facilities. “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 essential in healthcare is that they reduce burnout. Why? Without self-awareness, treating burnout or knowing when it’s happening is challenging. 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 into a lot of power struggles?
  • Are you getting negative feedback from patients or colleagues?
  • How do you handle conflict? Can you 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 the following:

  • Educating yourself: Read about them and learn what they are.
  • Consider psychotherapy: This process helps you better understand 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 the 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.
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