Soft Skills Every Nursing Student Needs to Develop

Nurses are expected to be skilled in many areas of patient care, including patient records, vital signs, and emergency situations. Along with developing these technical skills in school, nursing students must also develop their soft skills, such as communication, critical thinking, and problem solving in order to become well-rounded and effective professionals.

MEET THE EXPERT

Jannah Amiel
Jannah Amiel

View Bio

Jannah Amiel (MS, BSN, RN) has been an RN since 2007. She received her MSN from Florida Atlantic University and her BSN and ASN from Keiser University. Jannah’s clinical background is in Pediatrics, specifically Pediatric Intensive Care (PICU), Pediatric Emergency & Level 1 Trauma, and Pediatric Urgent Care and School Health. Jannah Amiel currently oversees instructional design of the CNA program at Osmosis.

On This Page

You could be the best nurse in your hospital at intubating patients or finding impossible veins for IVs, but your services would be lacking without proper soft skills. Knowing how to communicate effectively with patients and colleagues, work with others, and empathize with those facing scary prognoses is all part of being a well-rounded nurse. Soft skills sometimes get overlooked when talking about required competencies, but that doesn’t make them any less important. Read on to learn about the top soft skills required in the nursing profession today.

Communication

Communication is a foundational soft skill in the world of nursing. Whether communicating instructions on at-home care as a patient is discharged or writing notes in their charts, nurses must know how to communicate difficult information to a variety of populations with varied medical knowledge.

Why Nurses Need It

Nurses must know how to communicate diagnoses and treatment plans to patients, provide doctors and other healthcare providers with updates, and ensure family members understand how to properly care for patients upon discharge. Because they often serve as the healthcare professional patients see most frequently, they need to be able to develop trust, offer guidance, and answer questions clearly.

One example of communication in action includes explaining to patients what they are doing as they do it. For instance, inserting an IV can be stressful for patients afraid of needles. Nurses with effective communication skills can help draw their attention away from what’s happening by engaging them in conversation and distracting them momentarily.

How Nursing Students Develop Communication Skills

  • Be aware of body language
    Communication doesn’t just involve words: it also involves nonverbal cues. Try sitting in front of a mirror to see how you look when communicating. Address issues such as slouched shoulders, crossed arms, or averted eyes to create a more open presence.
  • Don’t interrupt
    Cutting people off is a surefire way to shut them down and miss important information. Pay attention when you’re talking to see how often you do this. Make sure others finish their thoughts before you speak and save your questions/answers until the end.
  • Listen closely
    Effective nurses must listen to patients and colleagues alike to work effectively. Practice close listening by avoiding distractions and not thinking about how you will respond until after they finish speaking.

Communication Resources for Nurses

  • Nurse-to-Nurse Communication Skills
    RegisteredNurseRN provides this video that addresses how to communicate effectively with your fellow nurses.
  • LikeSo App
    This real-time app allows you to record your voice and provides feedback on ways to speak more articulately and confidently.

Listening

Taking patients’ medical histories, closely following doctors’ orders, and paying attention to care protocols all constitute important parts of a nurse’s job. Each requires the same skill: active and careful listening. Nurses must be able to focus on what others say, address concerns, and accommodate preferences.

Why Nurses Need It

Nurses cannot do their jobs properly without being able to listen and follow instructions. Nurses who take down incorrect information about patients could put their lives in danger, as could not paying attention to instructions given by an attending physician.

Active listening looks like making sure you give a patient or colleague your full attention while they speak. Refrain from looking at your phone or at paperwork, maintain steady eye contact, and repeat the information back to them to ensure you heard it correctly.

How Nursing Students Develop Listening Skills

  • Use the SAGE Method
    (S): Consider the setting and make sure your patient/colleague feels comfortable to speak openly and honestly. (A): Ask direct questions to elicit specific answers that help you provide care. (G): Gather all the information you need, repeat it back, and write it down to make sure you can refer back later. (E): Show empathy at every step and make sure they feel understood.
  • Show you’re listening
    Active listening isn’t only about not getting distracted or interrupting. When someone is speaking, give both verbal and nonverbal clues to show you’re following. Nod your head slightly and use phrases such as “I understand,” or “I see what you’re saying” to let them know you’re paying attention.
  • Don’t interrupt
    Even if you have a question about something a person says, wait until they finish speaking to ask it. Constantly interrupting people will make them shut down, lose their thoughts, or feel like you’re not paying attention.

Listening Resources for Nurses

Teamwork

As with other clinical jobs in healthcare, no nurse can go it alone. Teamwork involves communicating effectively, addressing conflict in a timely manner, appreciating the contributions of others, and learning how to work with the strengths and weaknesses of each member on your team.

Why Nurses Need It

Becoming a nurse means working with others throughout your career. If you don’t enjoy teamwork, this career might not best suit your skillsets and interests. Knowing how to effectively work with others allows for improved patient outcomes, more accountability, additional opportunities to engage with fellow professionals, and greater job satisfaction.

An example of teamwork in action may involve taking on responsibilities for a coworker when something comes up in their personal life. You may agree to take their shift or perform one of their usual tasks due to their needing to leave early or miss work for a day or two. Aside from ensuring no balls are dropped in patient care, you also build a stronger relationship with your coworker and can turn to them for help with the need arises.

How Nursing Students Develop Teamwork Skills

  • Promote collaboration
    Rather than trying to do everything yourself, look for ways to involve others. Consider the strengths and weaknesses of your teammates and give others the opportunity to use their strengths in meaningful ways.
  • Encourage others
    When someone on your team does a good job or steps out of their comfort zone, make sure you acknowledge their contribution. Encouraging others has a ripple effect in helping everyone on the team feel good about themselves.
  • Don’t let conflict fester
    If you recognize an issue between yourself and another team member, address it immediately. What initially starts as a small issue could grow into something much larger if left unaddressed.

Listening Resources for Nurses

Critical Thinking and Problem Solving

Critical thinking is the ability to analyze and evaluate information in a way to gather knowledge used in making informed decisions. Critical thinking plays an important role in nursing as these professionals must observe patients, gather information about their condition, troubleshoot problems, and think on their feet about next steps in care.

Why Nurses Need It

Critical thinking informs much of what nurses do daily. Taking an analytical approach to patient care helps ensure nurses recognize changes in their patients’ health status and can react quickly before their condition worsens. Critical thinking also plays a role in providing sensitive care, be that knowing about drug interactions, adhering to religious requirements, or respecting the cultural needs of those in their charge.

An example of critical thinking in action involves nurses who notice a small complication in one of their patients. Rather than ignoring it or waiting until it gets worse, nurses using critical thinking can analyze why the complication may be happening and take active steps to address it immediately.

How Nursing Students Develop Critical Thinking & Problem-Solving Skills

  • Ask questions
    Effectively troubleshooting a problem requires understanding it from all angles so you can analyze it fully. Asking thoughtful questions can help nurses gather the information needed to make an informed, fully considered decision on next steps for treatment and care.
  • Suspend judgment
    Regardless of your cultural, religious, political, or societal views, these must be suspended when providing care. You cannot adequately troubleshoot issues or solve problems if your views get in the way. You also cannot provide adequate care without respecting the wishes of your patients.
  • Seek mentorship
    Critical thinking isn’t a skill that develops overnight; it must be honed over time. Mentors can help you develop these skills by sharing their journey and offering advice. You can find them via your professors, through guest speakers, or in professional organizations.

Critical Thinking & Problem-Solving Resources for Nurses

Professionalism

Professionalism can take many different forms in nursing, but each helps contribute to better patient care and improved health outcomes. Examples of professionalism include maintaining patient confidentiality, taking feedback gracefully, maintaining a positive attitude, and keeping an attitude of compassion even in difficult working environments.

Why Nurses Need It

Professionalism not only benefits patients, but also serves nurses and their colleagues. By keeping a spirit of professionalism among all employees, workers are far more likely to avoid conflict, improve leadership and growth through coaching, and maintain a positive attitude during workdays. Nursing teams who prioritize professionalism can focus more on work and provide top-tier care to patients in their charge.

Professionalism in action looks like nurses taking the time to correctly sanitize to protect themselves, their colleagues, and their patients before and after any interaction with an ailing person. It means following best practices and committing to the best care protocols each and every day.

How Nursing Students Develop Skills in Professionalism

  • Learn best practices
    Best practices ensure professionalism in nursing and can be gained through continuing education courses, joining a professional membership organization, and committing to continuous learning throughout your career.
  • Be accountable
    Acknowledging when you don’t know something or if you make a mistake plays a huge role in being a professional others can trust. Be accountable for your actions and take responsibility when required.
  • Maintain confidentiality
    Confidentiality serves as a basic human right of patients receiving care, yet sometimes personal details get shared. Regardless of whether your patient is a private citizen or well-known public figure, commit to keeping their information confidential.

Professionalism Resources for Nurses

Empathy

Empathy allows you to put yourself in the shoes of others to understand their feelings and emotions. Empathy plays an incredibly important role in nursing given that you spend your days caring for those facing illness, disease, and/or injury. Nurses who lack empathy will find themselves unsympathetic to patients and may struggle to build trust and repartee with those in their care.

Why Nurses Need It

Understanding the anxieties, fears, and feelings faced by your patients can help you become a dynamic healthcare professional and provide the space needed for patients to face their emotions. With telemedicine expanding, being able to show empathy both in-person and through videoconferencing applications will become more important than ever.

An example of a nurse showing empathy would be giving a patient the time and attention needed to process their emotions before validating their feelings. Letting those in your care know that you recognize the difficulty of their situation and that their feelings are valid can go a long way in helping them feel seen and understood.

How Nursing Students Develop Skills in Empathy

  • Make eye contact
    Making eye contact with others can be difficult as it can make us feel vulnerable and exposed. Taking time to do this – even for a moment while asking a question or listening – can help you connect with your patients and help them feel understood.
  • Be aware of prejudices
    It can sometimes feel difficult to show empathy to someone who we may feel has it all together or wants for nothing. If you’re caring for a wealthy patient, for instance, it can be hard to empathize when you work 60+ hours per week. But acknowledging that prejudice can help you realize that money doesn’t solve everything and everyone faces difficulties.
  • Watch body language
    Some people may say they’re fine and try to put on a brave front, but that doesn’t mean they are okay. If your patient seems fidgety, constantly picks at or bites their nails, or struggles to make eye contact, it could be a sign of nervousness or anxiety.

Empathy Resources for Nurses

Conflict Resolution

Conflict resolution is the skill required to diffuse tense situations, address disagreements promptly, and come to agreeable terms with others. Conflict resolution plays an important role in nursing when dealing with both coworkers and patients. Conflict resolution can take many different forms but is most effective when used early and often.

Why Nurses Need It

Whether dealing with interpersonal conflicts, issue-based conflicts, ego-based conflicts, or ethics-based conflicts, knowing how to resolve them is critical. You also need to know how to resolve them in healthy ways, as trying to avoid the issue, act as a people-pleaser, or compromise your values doesn’t truly solve the problem. Clear and honest communication is essential to conflict resolution, as is a willingness to admit wrongs and move forward.

Conflict resolution can look like going directly to a colleague after a misunderstanding and addressing the issue clearly and quickly. Perhaps they thought you questioned their decision-making or judgment with a specific patient. Rather than letting it fester, speak with them privately as soon as possible to clear up any problems.

How Nursing Students Develop Conflict Resolution Skills

  • Commit to honest communication
    Even if you make a mistake, it’s not the worst thing in the world. Rather than trying to hide the issue or act like it didn’t happen, commit yourself to always being honest. It may be uncomfortable for a moment but is the best option in the long run.
  • Be aware of your emotions
    If you feel like someone has wronged you, taken advantage of your time, or been dishonest about something, it can be easy to get mad. While anger may help you feel better for a while, it doesn’t help with resolving issues in the long run.
  • Understand the role of mediators
    Sometimes it’s best to have a third party available to help you and the person you’re in conflict with sort through emotions. A coworker with no involvement in the issue can often serve in this role to help diffuse tensions and help you and the other person find resolve.

Conflict Resolution Resources for Nurses

Initiative and Leadership

Initiative plays a pivotal role in career growth as it signals a nurse’s ability to assess what needs to be done and take care of it before being told to do so. Leadership is also an important component when it comes to managing other nurses and healthcare professionals, creating team cohesion, and setting workflow goals for supervisees.

Why Nurses Need It

Leadership skills may not be required your first day of work but moving up the career ladder often involves taking on the management of others. Without leadership skills, you will struggle to receive consideration for promotions. Leadership doesn’t just involve telling others what to do; it also includes taking initiative and creating a roadmap for the future. The best nurse leaders excel in decision-making, quality care, collaboration, and change management.

Nurses with initiative use their skills to show others their ability to take charge and manage themselves. Nurses looking to be promoted may place extra emphasis on anticipating the needs of their superiors and ensuring tasks get done before being asked.

How Nursing Students Develop Listening Skills

  • Engage in learning
    Whether getting to know the latest technology used in nursing or staying up to date on academic journals in the field, committing to lifelong learning can help you set yourself apart from other nurses and demonstrate your interest in taking on leadership positions.
  • Join a professional association
    Becoming a member in one of the many nursing associations provides you access to mentorship, leadership development initiatives, continuing education, training, and other programs that can help you develop leadership skills and prepare for advanced roles.
  • Understand your “why”
    Committing to leadership roles often requires sacrifice in other areas of your life – at least when trying to secure a position. Understanding why you want to be a leader can help you stay focused when the going gets tough.

Leadership Resources for Nurses

Adaptability

Adaptability involves being able to change tasks and priorities quickly and with flexibility. Whether this means adjusting to a new schedule, adapting to emerging nursing protocols, or working with myriad different types of patients on a given day, adaptable nurses know how to make themselves fit in and be useful no matter the scenario.

Why Nurses Need It

Adaptability is one of the most important soft skills a nurse can possess. Every day can look different in the life of a nurse. Their rotations can change, patients can possess significantly different personalities or life experiences, and evolving regulations around nursing and patient care can mean doing things differently. Adaptable nurses roll with the punches and maintain their place in an ever-changing environment.

An example of adaptability in action could involve nurses moving to a new job. While their previous setting may have done things one way, the new position calls for different protocols. Rather than sticking with what they know, adaptable nurses quickly learn how to quickly pivot and learn the new way of doing things.

How Nursing Students Develop Listening Skills

  • Stay open-minded
    Just because you learned how to do someone one way or practiced it that way in your clinical practicum doesn’t mean that’s the only way it can be done. Do your best not to get stuck in your ways and continually remind yourself that there is often more than one way to accomplish something.
  • Appreciate new ways of doing things
    Healthcare will always be an evolving field, with new research informing emerging therapies and ways of caring for patients. To stay relevant and in demand in the nursing field, you must embrace learning and appreciate new ways of performing nursing responsibilities.
  • Be a risktaker
    Learning a new skill or doing something in a different way from how you’ve always done it can be scary, but that doesn’t mean it’s wrong. Continually look for ways to take yourself out of your comfort zone. In addition to learning new skills, it will also approve your ability to be adaptable.

Adaptability Resources for Nurses

Organization & Time Management

Possessing organizational skills helps you balance multiple responsibilities and make sure nothing falls through the cracks. Time management aids in this by helping you prioritize deadlines, ensure you get through your rounds on time, and reduce overall stress.

Why Nurses Need It

Nurses are busy professionals. A typical day can include doing intake for new patients, taking medical histories, coordinating care with healthcare professionals, managing medications, and performing diagnostic tests as needed. They must also keep on top of administrative duties and participate in continuing education programming. With so much on their plates, organization and time management play a critical role in the success of nurses.

An example of organization and time management within nursing includes RNs and other nursing professionals beginning their days by understanding time-sensitive responsibilities, mapping out a way to get those done by deadline, and fitting in other daily responsibilities once the more pressing ones are complete.

How Nursing Students Develop Organization & Time Management Skills

  • Set priorities
    Some tasks are more time-sensitive than others, making it important that you learn how to prioritize them. When you arrive for your shift, take a moment to think about what you need to accomplish. Write down or create a list in your head and check these items off throughout the day.
  • Take breaks
    It may seem counterintuitive but taking short breaks throughout the day can actually help you work faster. If you’re worn out and tired, you often work more slowly and make more errors. Even walking down to the cafeteria to get coffee can help you reset and refresh your mind.
  • Use timers
    If you find yourself lagging behind while doing rounds or administrative tasks, set a timer on your phone. This can help you stay focused while working and keep up with whether you’re behind or ahead on your daily tasks.

Organization & Time Management Resources for Nurses

Soft Skills Q&A with a Nursing Expert

Jannah Amiel (MS, BSN, RN) has been an RN since 2007. She received her MSN from Florida Atlantic University and her BSN and ASN from Keiser University. Jannah’s clinical background is in Pediatrics, specifically Pediatric Intensive Care (PICU), Pediatric Emergency & Level 1 Trauma, and Pediatric Urgent Care and School Health. Jannah Amiel currently oversees instructional design of the CNA program at Osmosis.

What are some of the most underrated or overlooked soft skills a nurse needs? 

In my opinion, practicing empathy and communicating effectively are some of the most talked about, but overlooked, soft skills in nursing.

Why are these skills important when caring for patients or working with colleagues?

We live, work and play in a society where technology, amazing as it is, has seemingly replaced tasks that would have otherwise required direct person-to-person interaction. Pair that with increasing workloads, the holistic connection between Nurse and patient becomes weaker. As a result, we become less and less tuned into our patients as a fellow human, and more and more tuned into the technological tools that give us data about them. It’s so critical that we practice empathy with our patients and colleagues, and not forget that technology is a tool to enhance the work we do, not substitute it. It’s also very important that we can communicate effectively with each other. Not just speaking clearly, but also listening intentionally to one another with the purpose to understand and provide solutions.

Outside of school, how can nurses build these skills?

Outside of school, Nurses can practice empathy and effective communication in so many ways. This can be as simple (and fulfilling!) as applying these skills when you’re interacting with friends and family or putting them to use when having a tough encounter or conversation with a peer. Being consistently mindful about practicing these is a great way to start building these skills. 

How do soft skills benefit nurses when applying for jobs? 

Soft skills are certainly a benefit! Employers want to know that the Nurses they hire are equipped with the emotional intelligence and fortitude to be able to handle challenging situations. Nursing isn’t just about administering medications and starting IVs; Nurses are part of a team of various professionals and patients. Adopting these soft skills strengthen your ability as a Nurse.

If a nurse decides to upgrade their career or move into a different part of the healthcare field, how do these skills translate to other roles?

This is the beauty of soft skills! They apply to any profession in the healthcare field. At some level, whether directly or indirectly, you’ll be a part of a greater team of other people. So long as that is present, the need for these soft skills will also be. After all, in the healthcare field, we must start with people first.