Though nursing is one of those careers you can get into fairly quickly – after a minimum of two years of classes plus enough clinical hours gained on a ward – it can sometimes seem daunting to consider all the skills you will have to acquire before you start work. What you may not realize is that the chances are that you possess some of the most important skills already. These soft skills can be acquired in many different contexts in the course of simply living your life, and they are every bit as important to the job as knowing how to decipher a patient’s notes or set up a drip.
If you are planning to take a course in nursing, you can work on improving these skills while you wait for it to start. They will give you a big advantage once it gets going and prepare you to excel as a nurse practitioner.
No matter how good you might be at everything else, if you don’t feel for your patients, you will struggle in a nursing profession. It all begins with care and the ability to empathize with patients, whether they are accident victims, senior citizens receiving end-of-life care, or children who need a pep talk before receiving their routine vaccinations. Empathy will help you to anticipate the support that is most appropriate for them, and it will help them to recognize that you are there to make things better. You will need to learn how to manage it so that you do not get too deeply emotionally involved as you do your job, with a view to protecting your mental health and giving patients the space they need. Still, you should always be able to feel for them to keep you on the right track and make providing for their needs a rewarding experience.
In healthcare, most of the important knowledge of what patients need stems from what they have to say – or, in the case of very young children and people with speech or cognitive impairments, what they communicate in other ways. This means that, first and foremost, you have to be a good listener. Training as a nurse will encourage you to develop active listening skills, build trust with patients and gently elicit the necessary information. You will also need to know how to talk to patients, soothing their worries and helping build up their confidence even in situations where they are unable to give you a verbal response. You will learn how to be persuasive when negotiating the consent needed for important procedures and how to exercise your authority, when necessary without causing distress. Your communication skills will play an important role with patients’ family members as well as the patients themselves.
When working as a nurse, you never know who is going to need your help, and if you are to use your communication skills effectively, you need to recognize that not everybody will communicate within the same cultural frame of reference as you. Learning more about other cultures, especially those you are most likely to encounter in the area where you work, will help you avoid accidentally causing distress and make you better at anticipating patients’ needs. It will give you insights into key differences in areas like how patients describe pain, how they deal with issues of consent and who is likely to provide care for them when they are at home. It will also provide comfort, as people can feel lonely and particularly vulnerable when dependent on care in an environment where they feel that nobody understands them. The single most important aspect of cultural competence, and the starting point for your learning journey, is developing the awareness that you can get these things wrong.
Whether working on a busy ward, keeping track of a complex roster of cases in the community, or providing full-time care for a single patient with a complex condition, a nursing career will often put you in situations where you just cannot cope without good organization. There are lots of tools nurses use to help them in this situation, but first and foremost, you will need to appreciate the importance of keeping things in order. This is especially important in situations where another nurse or a different type of healthcare professional needs to be able to pick up where you left off and know exactly what has and has not been done. You will need to keep detailed records, follow instructions precisely and be efficient when it comes to time management. Being able to recover information quickly can be of critical importance when a patient needs urgent care.
If you are going to get the big things right in nursing, it is imperative to pay attention to the little things. That is partly why training on the ward begins with a lot of repetitive tasks – you need to find out straight away if you have what it takes to perform them properly, even when you are feeling bored or frustrated. A patient’s temperate might be the same 99 out of 100 times you take it, but on the one occasion that it is not, your noticing and taking appropriate action could make the difference between life and death. Good nurses get into the habit of being diligent about everything they do, even when under pressure. They understand that doing the job properly is key to optimizing patient health and reducing the risk of deterioration, which is better for the patient and reduces the strain on healthcare services over time.
A good deal of nursing involves problem-solving. You will need to have the capacity to look for innovative solutions and to identify the best way forward when you have very few tools at your disposal. Although, in most circumstances, you will be supported by strong protocols and will have access to the expertise of other health professionals, the number of patients with comorbidities and complex needs is sufficiently large that you will often run into situations where the standard approaches do not work. Critical thinking will help when you need to tailor procedures to fit the patient, and it is also helpful when you need to adjust what you’re doing to fit specific contexts, such as working in a school or nursing home. It ensures that you are able to operate independently when necessary.
If you are going to exercise your critical thinking skills effectively, you will need to ensure that you are constantly open to new ideas and new perspectives. This means being very honest – with others so that they can identify the gaps in your knowledge and provide assistance, and with yourself because everyone has limits, and it is essential to acknowledge them. This openness will also help you to understand patients’ perspectives and learn from them because although most do not have training in healthcare, they may still have valuable insights into their conditions. Throughout your career, you will build up expertise and develop ways of working, which you can rely on more and more of the time, but there is always more to learn – indeed, that attracts many people to the profession. It continues to offer educational opportunities, and staying flexible mentally will help you take best advantage of them.
Bias, as well as being problematic in itself, hinders successful healthcare provision, so it’s important to work proactively to root it out – but that requires recognizing it first, in both its overt and its subtler, often systemic manifestations. This means that you have an obligation to listen carefully to the experiences of others and keep a continual critical eye on your own behavior as well as other people’s. It also means being alert to forms of bias beyond those routinely talked about on training days – asking yourself if, for instance, you treat your fat patients as sympathetically as thin ones or if particular accents make you less inclined to pay attention to people’s opinions. Ultimately, when going beyond social bias and factoring in the personal, you need to consider whether the care you provide to individual patients depends on whether or not you get along with them. Learning to respect people even if you do not like them can be tough, but it is a necessary part of the job.
Learning to give equal support to different kinds of people is only one of the ways you will be required to be adaptable as a nurse. While well-honed routines and a well-organized hierarchy always help, nurses have to be ready to deal with the unexpected. You will also be expected to adapt to different working environments, developing specialties as part of your career progression. Most senior nurses have at least two or three of these, and the fact that combinations vary mean that somebody can usually be found with the right specialist skills to help any patient. This experience of having to adapt helps in times of crisis, such as the COVID pandemic, at whose outset nurses from many different backgrounds were required to learn infectious disease protocols quickly and develop the skills needed to help with the large number of patients who suddenly needed treatment for respiratory, cardiac, renal, and gastric problems.
The majority of people employed in nursing roles work within teams with other nurses. Some work as part of mixed teams with different types of healthcare professionals within the community, and even those who work independently have access to a wider community of nurses to which they are answerable and can draw on for support if necessary. This means you excel more at the job when working as a team player. Respecting the hierarchy within your team ensures that you will not inadvertently step beyond the bounds of your competence and gives you a degree of legal protection. It also means that the team can function efficiently as a whole and provide the best possible care to patients. Just as senior nurses take responsibility for guiding you, you will often have responsibility for others and need to be ready to provide them with the support they need. Caring for your colleagues is an excellent way of showing respect and gratitude for their help, and you can be confident that they will look out for you in return.
As you rise through the ranks, you will gradually acquire more and more responsibility for others. You will receive help to build up your leadership skills in the process. This begins with developing your personal confidence and learning how to make good decisions even when you are tired or under pressure. The best nurses are passionate about what they do right from the outset. When you are first learning how to be a nurse practitioner in NC, what you discover should excite you. If you are taking one of the two-year courses at Texas Women’s University, you will have to work hard, putting yourself to the test, but you will also have a huge amount of fascinating subject matter to explore and, with it, the ability to grow as a person.
Learning how to reassure patients and inspire them to think more positively about difficult situations lays the groundwork for learning how to inspire and motivate your team. It helps to be observant and pay attention to the parts of the job where others struggle, whether or not you find those things difficult. This will help you to identify the areas where more guidance and support is needed. You will also be able to bring the listening skills you developed with patients to bear in your role as a leader, getting your team members to trust you and open up about what they need.
Inevitably, nursing can be stressful. You may find yourself working long hours, having a lot of strenuous physical tasks to perform, and being put through the wringer emotionally. This means that you will need to be good at handling stress. Again, this is an area where you will receive training and support, and the close-knit nursing community plays an important role in helping most nurses to get through difficult patches. It is important to recognize when the pressure you face is getting too much and not be shy about asking for help. Other healthcare staff will understand, and most workplaces have counseling schemes available. Exploring ways of burning off stress is also essential. Different things work for different people. It could be spending time with friends or loved ones, going to the gym, playing video games, or simply going out into a remote place and repeatedly shouting as loud as you can.
Related to stress management is resilience, the ability to bounce back after difficult periods and keep on going when things are hard. Developing resilience will help you stay in a positive mood and remain focused on the job at hand rather than taking cumulative damage. Although it is generally talked about in terms of mental health, resilience also matters when it comes to your physical health. Acknowledging your physical limits is important, and keeping yourself fit will help you to recover more quickly from all sorts of physical stresses and strains. Remember: do not feel bad about putting yourself first when taking care of your physical and mental health. Make sure there are things in your life which do not just chase off stress but make you feel positively good about yourself. Strong interpersonal relationships and knowing how to have fun are the bedrock of resilience.
It is much easier to be resilient if you can laugh about things and cope with the pressure of responsibility if you don’t take yourself too seriously. The right kind of humor can also be a big help for patients, relieving stress and helping them to refocus their minds on more positive things. It can likewise play a role in keeping up morale in your team or your whole institution. Some people are naturally more inclined this way than others, but anyone can practice seeing the funny side of things and paying attention to humorous aspects of life even when they also have to spend time dealing with difficult ones. You can also use videos or memes to help restore your good humor when you’re struggling or bring a smile to others’ faces. Don’t underestimate the power of this simple approach.
Finally, it has to be said that it’s impossible to succeed as a nurse unless you are really committed to doing the job well. If this inspires you and if you find it truly rewarding to help others, you will have the potential to become an amazing nurse. Just make sure that you are going into it with your whole heart and that you have the drive within you to make a success of it.
Skills like these may not always get the same respect from the general public as the academic and technical things you learn in the course of your training, but employers consider them highly valuable. Patients value them, and by developing them, you will not only become a better nurse – you will become a more competent and confident human being.