Why ‘soft skills’ are key to effective person-centred mental health care

Listening and being a good team player are key soft skills. Photograph © Chip Griffin on Flickr

Hard to explain but vital in health care, soft skills also have the power to improve our personal relationships, writes Vicky Peace

Over the past few weeks you may have noticed the term ‘soft skills’ being used quite frequently in the news, usually connected to job hunting:

That got me thinking, what are soft skills? And are there areas of work where they might be most valuable?

The answer to the first question isn’t straightforward. One way of putting it is that hard skills are things like qualifications and occupational requirements. Soft skills are everything else.

They are all about human interaction and communication. I’ve listed a few examples in the panel.

What are soft skills?

Being a good team player
Being aware of your influence on others
Working under pressure
Committing to something
Good decision making
Being flexible

Source: National Careers Service

I like to think of soft skills as the changing words and forms of body language we use to communicate with a wide range of people – as well as having the intuition to know how someone would like to be spoken to.

Person-centred mental health

So are there areas of work where these skills could be particularly useful?

Qa has been undertaking research in the field of person-centred mental health care. It’s a field where good communication is vital.

The NICE guidelines says that person-centred care:

“takes into account service users’ needs, preferences and strengths. People who use mental health services should have the opportunity to make informed decisions about their care and treatment, in partnership with their health and social care practitioners”

From my work I have learned that person-centred care is extremely important when it comes to offering support to someone with mental health problems.

This is a sensitive issue and it can be particularly difficult knowing what to say and how to say it.

That’s why mental health professionals are trained over a period of time, gaining experience, skills and tools with which to support their service users.

Soft skills in the field

I asked a community recovery worker in Sheffield about this. She spoke about the importance of nurturing good communications with people.

It is important to help people make positive associations rather than negative or neutral ones, she said. That way, next time they talk they can relate to this good experience – which, in turn, has an effect on future thought patterns.

Crucially, everyone is different. That’s why focusing on the person – and not the illness or the service – is essential when we are thinking about ways to help someone we care about.

We found this when we conducted some research into alcohol dependency last year.

In depth interviews revealed that one-to-one personalised support is crucial in motivating recovery – not just with the physical addiction but also improving their mental health.

To deliver that sort of support to a wide range of people with very differing personalities and needs – well, it takes some seriously impressive soft skills.

Soft skills in all walks of life

qa-logo-square-cutout-60This is the first of a monthly series of blogs exploring what we have learned from our research into helping improve services for people with mental health problems, children, young people and families, and those in later life
The great thing about soft skills is how transferable they are. A person-centred approach is vital in professional mental health care, and to help those struggling with alcohol dependency.

Surely it can also work with a friend, relative or colleague having a difficult time. Can we think about developing our softs skills and using them to help one another?

I think so. And here are five ways we can do it.

1. Use your soft skills to help empower: language is powerful and can influence thoughts and feelings within all of us.

2. Use your soft skills to help include: mental illness can be isolating, so think about what activities your friend or loved one might be interested in and encourage them to join.

3. Use your soft skills to stay present: be mindful and don’t focus on the ‘ifs’ or ‘buts’ and worries of the future or past.

4. Use your soft skills unambiguously: if you want someone to talk to you or open up, let them know it’s OK – try to avoid confusing body language.

And finally, 5. use those soft skills to be an active listener: open up the channels of communication for those you care about. They might really need you to hear what they have to say.