I have spent most of my working career in the construction industry. The industry builds the hospitals, outpatient facilities, surgery centers, and doctor’s offices. In short, it builds places where doctors treat their patients. That’s one connection between the health-care industry and the construction industry.
Another connection that is vitally important is that both industries are essentially service businesses. Both serve people. Doctors call them patients. Contractors call them customers. How we are when we are serving these people is the domain of soft skills. In all aspects of human life, there are certain skills that are termed “soft,” but the adjective doesn’t make this set of skills less important than their hard counterparts. Soft skills breathe life into the work you do and the environment you create, which allows you and everyone around you to truly thrive. Soft skills are really qualities, attributes, and behaviors of people. Increasingly, we are recognizing that soft skills are more important particularly because they affect the experience patients and customers have.
You have spent many years gaining the knowledge, skills, and abilities to serve your patients. No matter what industry or profession we talk about, those many years have focused primarily on the hard skills involved in your work.
I’ve always found it interesting when someone describes themselves as a “practicing” physician, lawyer, or accountant, which is every direct acknowledgment of one of the simplest and vital aspects of doing the job. You practice continuously to get better at it. Get better at the hard skills. So why not apply the same notion of practice to soft skills?
The term “bedside manner” dates back all the way to 1848. Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary says it means “the manner that a physician assumes toward patients.” In practical terms, this original meaning is about how you are with patients and others who you manage and lead. Yes, I said, “Lead”. Some of the terms you see used in connection with bedside manner include communication, interpersonal skills, listening, time management, problem-solving, and conflict resolution. Each of these and others have aspects which can be taught in the same manner as other knowledge, skills, or abilities for a physician. And they can be improved with practice. Among these, I refer to communication as being the “ultimate core competency.”
We all understand that communication is important in our lives, but that doesn’t mean we are good at it. Communication isn’t just talking or listening. We don’t naturally connect the word “communication” to every aspect of how we behave as a person among people. We often forget that the method of communicating is vital to getting good results in interactions with others.
Describing a person as a good communicator says simply that they possess the skill and that they convey good qualities such as being empathetic, respectful, resilient, motivational, inspiring, and caring. They are so important to the leadership role that the physician fills daily with the team that together serve the patient. Essential to how you are. That is why I call communication the “ultimate core competency” and why I believe that every one of us needs to raise our awareness that communication is a competency or skill. A skill is something that we learn about and improve with practice. Communication is core because it is involved in so many different routine things that happen every day—sharing information, coordinating, making decisions, problem-solving, negotiating, and conflict resolution.
Communication’s most important purpose is to get to know your patients and help them get to know you. The physician-patient relationship is perhaps the most important relationship through their lives, certainly from the patient’s perspective. Your words, as well as nonverbal, visual elements like eye contact, and body language, are essential to the patient’s experience. Keeping this in mind, along with an increased awareness of listening as an undervalued skill, is fundamental to your bedside manner.
A lot has been written about emotional intelligence, and it fits well within the discussion about soft skills. Soft skills related to emotional intelligence include qualities like self-awareness, empathy, patience, calmness, and caring. Understanding as much as you can about emotional intelligence is so valuable to your success as a physician. If you think for just a moment about how your workday goes when you are “in a bad mood” or someone you work with is “having a bad day,” you are talking about how emotion impacts behavior. All people, including you, have emotions. Simply put, our brains are wired so that emotions affect our ability to think and act rationally. Many of us are controlled by our emotions, and when you understand this, you can do something about it.
One of the most practical books on this topic is Emotional Intelligence 2.0 by Travis Bradberry and Jean Greaves. This book teaches us that your emotional intelligence is about competence and skills—personal competence and social competence. Personal competence involves two skills—self-awareness and self-management. Social competence also involves two skills—social awareness and relationship management. Your emotional intelligence is in play all the time, balancing all of these competencies and skills.
Every one of your soft skills is affected by your emotions. As I said earlier, humans are emotional and many of us are more controlled by our emotions than we would like. To be more successful in all your relationships, it is important to understand something about emotional intelligence. You don’t want to be one of those folks who people say are good at the technical or hard-skills part of their job, but they are hard to get along with. Think about emotional intelligence as one of the soft-skills areas you need to understand in order to get better results in all that you do with others. Start by looking at you and your emotions! It all starts with that look in the mirror and then expands by paying careful attention to what’s going on with the other people around you.
We are in the middle of a catastrophic period of our lives, something we have not experienced in the USA in over 100 years. It is testing every person young and old. We are compelled to stop doing just about anything outside our homes that is not essential. That pretty much eliminates everything except going for a walk and maintaining six feet of separation between ourselves and any people we encounter and going to the grocery store or pharmacy. Only those among us who have jobs that are deemed essential are going to those jobs. Without a doubt, the most essential are medical professionals—doctors, nurses, and first responders.
I’ve been saying to folks in the construction industry and elsewhere that soft skills matter. They matter so much more now as we face the health crisis gripping the USA and the world. Caring is a universal, vital quality, caring for family, friends, people you work with and for, and community. Every relationship you have needs to be valued and maintained with great caring. It matters! Now, more than ever, I feel the importance of soft skills and emotional intelligence.
During this difficult time our nation is facing, it is of utmost importance that we show care, concern, and sincere empathy toward one another, not only in the workplace but also in our communities and especially amongst our loved ones. Soft skills matter more than ever.
Dennis D. Doran, a leading expert in the construction industry with more than thirty years of experience, is the author of the newly released and highly praised book Soft As Steel. There are two words that have continued to follow Dennis and capture his passion: people and service. Dennis’s message on the vital importance of developing and valuing soft skills is the leading topic of his seminars and the very essence of the message in Soft As Steel, written to equip readers with the tools to be successful, not just in business, but in life and relationships. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org