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The soft skills you need as a doctor

Debra Auerbach | June 10, 2014

Soft skills of doctors

Don't underestimate these skills for your doctoral profession.

When you see a doctor, you like to know that he has had the proper education and is experienced in his specialty area. It's also helpful to know whether others have had good experiences with the doctor during their visits. While medical skills are important, a good part of what makes doctors well-regarded by others is their soft skills.

Soft skills are those personal qualities, habits, attitudes and social abilities that make someone a well-rounded employee. When it comes to doctors, there are certain soft skills that are essential for them to possess if they want to make what's often an awkward and stressful situation more comfortable.

"Physicians must have the ability to listen and understand the pain, anxiety and uncertainty that many patients may be feeling while under treatment," says Dr. Sandy Vieder, medical director at Lakes Urgent Care in West Bloomfield, Mich. "The listening skills are most crucial. Listening will allow most physicians to 'figure out what's happening' if they just truly take the time to do so. Allowing patients to dictate the tempo for the first few minutes of an interaction, as long as there's no real emergency, will be helpful for both. We gather valuable information, the patients feel valued and the rapport quickly builds independently."

Dr. Lakshmi Halasyamani, chief medical officer at St. Joseph Mercy Ann Arbor and Livingston hospitals in Michigan, agrees that listening tops the list of soft skills doctors should possess. "Frequently, patients come to see us with specific concerns that may or may not have anything to do with the issues we are concerned about. If we do not start with what we can do to help a patient from his/her perspective, it is unlikely we will be able to effectively partner with the patient on their health concerns."

Techniques for sharpening soft skills
Patti Wood, body language expert and author of "SNAP: Making the Most of First Impressions, Body Language & Charisma," conducts research on and teaches body language and patient care. She says that doctors can benefit from establishing a good first impression and building rapport and trust so patients feel at ease to disclose their symptoms. She provides the following techniques that she uses in her training in health care settings to help doctors with their bedside manner:

Nod your head: You do not have to have a bobbing toy head, just occasionally nod your head to show you are listening and empathetic with the patient's message. An added bonus of nodding your head is that it releases endorphin-like chemicals into your bloodstream to make you feel good.

Turn your heart away from technology: Create a ritual of engagement. If you have a clipboard, computer or other device you need to use during an exam, greet and look at the patient first, and create a connection and rapport before looking down at notes or turning and reaching for something. Signal your intent by turning away from your "stuff" before you give important information to the patient.

Lean forward: Proximity -- being physically close -- signals your desire to be emotionally or physiologically close. Research shows that in a seated conversation, leaning backward communicates that you are dominant. If the conversation is a long one, you shouldn't spend the whole time at the edge of your seat. You can play with your leaning.

Expose your heart: Patients self-disclose more to listeners facing toward them. Even a quarter-turn away signals a lack of interest to the speaker and makes the speaker shut down. It also says something about your response to the message.

If doctors have a healthy mix of both hard and soft skills, their time with patients will be that much more productive and rewarding.

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