Social Skills in Nursing (Part I): the Art of Validation

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    Countless nurses, new and seasoned, continually report problems at their various workplaces. A common theme that proves central to many of these problems is a notable deficiency in several important social skills. In essence, some nurses are creating discord at their places of employment without even realizing it. This article is the first of a two-part essay that aims to discuss the top social skills problems that nurses face today.

    Social Skills in Nursing (Part I): the Art of Validation

    Before proceeding any further, here is a feasible definition of social skills. Also known as soft skills, relational skills or interpersonal skills, the term 'social skills' refers to the collective repertoire of intangible skills that individuals use to communicate, form connections, and facilitate interaction with other persons. Social skills are among the most important set of competencies an individual must develop because they influence success or failure in all aspects of life, including the formation and maintenance of good friendships, development of fulfilling romantic partnerships, and construction of a successful career. Frankly put, an unintelligent person can thrive professionally and personally if he has proficient social skills, but a highly intelligent individual may fail to find professional success and fulfilling personal relationships if he has poor social skills.

    Over the years, a significant number of posts we've encountered seem to pertain in one way or another, either directly or indirectly, to the detrimental effects of poor social skills in the workplace:
    • "My preceptor hates my guts!"
    • "The CNAs don't respect me."
    • "My coworker is the unit snitch."
    • "The day supervisor practices favoritism."
    • "Kelly thinks she's better than everyone."
    • "How can he get away with being so lazy?"
    • "None of my coworkers like me."
    • "Kerry is the snottiest nurse ever."
    • "I am a new grad who cannot find work."
    • "Why do patients love my ditzy coworker?"
    • "Employee turnover is sky high on my unit."
    • "Jeff talks constantly about his fishing trips."
    • "The family member kept me in that room for two hours!"

    It is no secret that some individuals possess more competence at utilizing social skills than others. Why does this happen? Well, some people have naturally picked up the necessary social skills during the mundane process of living their lives whereas others must explicitly be taught what to do, what to say and how to interact. Development of social skills is similar to construction of a skyscraper: the foundation is built through interactions with the individual's family of origin during infancy and childhood, and the subsequent floors are constructed with school experiences, socialization with classmates, and extracurricular encounters (sports teams, clubs, dance lessons, etc). The more an individual socializes, the more social skills they develop, and as a result their personal skyscraper becomes taller while they progress through life's situations.

    How does this all relate to nursing? The nursing profession, and other occupations that entail a profound number of encounters with many different people, must have members with reasonably good social skills. The chemical engineer who spends most of the workday in an office by himself can get away with poor social skills, but the bedside nurse with poor social skills will have a 30-year career peppered with 30+ different jobs, most of which involved involuntary termination (read: "you are fired!") or forced resignation. Without further delay, I will start listing ways in which nurses with poor social skills may wreak havoc without even realizing it.

    People need validation. Validate them, please!

    Human nature can be bizarre because it operates mostly on emotion rather than logic. Many people are looking to be told what they want to hear, and nothing more. Personally, if someone dislikes me, I'd rather not participate in phony exchanges that involve the two of us pretending to be fond of each other. However, I am an odd turtle who grasped basic social skills later than most. It wasn't until I approached 30 years old that I developed an awareness of humankind's profound needs for validation and personal acknowledgement. In essence, calling someone a 'loser' within earshot is pretty darned bad, but walking past the same person on the street without speaking or making eye contact is viewed by many people as an offense that is a trillion times worse. Why? When we call someone a 'loser' or some other derogatory name, we've acknowledged his existence and shown that we've thought of him, even if our opinion and thoughts are negative. But when we walk past someone with whom we're acquainted without uttering as much as a "Good morning," we've failed to validate their existence, and to many people this is an offense that slowly kills off a piece of their souls.

    The individual with poor social skills will see many workplace problems disappear if (s)he starts validating everyone, even people whom he/she dislikes. Do you work with a mouthy CNA who disappears or hides frequently? Acknowledge her. Pretend to show an interest in her life. Ask about her children, if any. Remember the children's names. Compliment her on her hair clip, necklace, shoes, or scrubs, even though she might look hideous. Every once in a while say, "Thank you for all that you do!" Coworkers will want to work with you once you show an interest in them as a person. The point is to validate one's existence as a person. Some of our colleagues, superiors and subordinates are pathetically lonely people who crave validation at the workplace because they do not get it in their personal lives. "Good morning" has a deeper meaning to many people because it communicates to the receiver that "I matter to you."

    Do you know a nurse who is beloved by patients, families and management even though she is somewhat dimwitted? Here's another question: do you know an intelligent, highly proficient nurse who has excellent procedural and assessment skills but cannot keep a job for long because she cannot seem to connect on an interpersonal level with patients, families and coworkers? It's all about the skill of acknowledgment. The nurse with the warm personality who knows what to say, when to smile, when to stroke the patient's hand, and how to allay the family member's fears will win their approval even though she's failed to rescue multiple times over the years. Patients and families judge healthcare workers based on how good they were made to feel, not by how good the nursing care might have been. This might not be fair, but few things in this life are fair. This same nurse knows how to validate the existence of her supervisors and unit manager by greeting them, showing interest in them as people, and being a pleasant person overall.

    Meanwhile, the socially awkward nurse with outstanding assessment and procedural skills cannot understand why she generates complaints from patients and families. After all, she feels she's an excellent nurse with the education, experience and hard skill set to handle virtually any situation. She walks into rooms, says hi to the sick person laying in the bed, and starts her assessments without drumming up small talk that validates the patient's existence. She doesn't speak much to the family members at the bedside or take any actions to stroke their fragile egos. She never shows an interest in her unit manager as a person and sometimes walks past him without a greeting. The nurse seldom speaks to her shift supervisors or charge nurse, but is there to run codes with precision. Other nurses, CNAs and ancillary staff have referred to her as standoffish, quiet, unsociable, and snotty. The socially awkward nurse feels that her supervisors and managers practice favoritism.

    The moral of the story is that social skills will make or break your career. Remember to validate people and acknowledge their existence as fellow humans. Show an interest in their lives, or at least pretend as if you care. If you are a new grad on orientation, be pleasant and agreeable to your new coworkers and spend some breaks with them on occasion. Always remember that small talk is never really about the weather, the latest fashion or the petty topic being discussed. Rather, small talk is the glue that helps formulate and maintain connections with your fellow human. Stay tuned for Part II, which discusses several other ways that socially awkward nurses may incite hard feelings without realizing it. Here are more pieces that discuss social skills:

    Confessions of a Nurse with Poor Interpersonal Skills

    Hard and Soft Skills

    References
    Skills You Need. (2011). What Are Social Skills? Retrieved December 21, 2014 from http://ww.skillsyouneed.com/ips/social-skills.html
    Last edit by TheCommuter on Dec 24, '14
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    TheCommuter, a moderator of allnurses.com since 2007, is a nurse with a variety of experiences upon which to draw for her articles. She was a licensed vocational nurse (LVN) for more than four years before becoming a registered nurse (RN).

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    43 Comments

  3. by   LadyFree28
    A timely reminder of an often disregarded skill.

    Can't wait for the next article!
  4. by   TSL7286
    Ive battled with this. I have great social skills, most of the time.
    But theres a line. Private life, happy life.
    There can become a point in a job where people get too personal. I really don't like that "we are a family" BS at work. They aren't my family, they are my co-workers. And sometimes the questions they ask me can be a little out of line. I don't want to discuss mine or your sex life at work, and no I really don't care what you do after work or on the weekends, and please don't ask me everyday what I'm doing. Also, please stop trying to show me pictures on your facebook or phone of your kids, I ain't got time for that in the middle of my shift.
    I always acknowledge my peers, I welcome everyone who I come across in the work place with a smile and hello, I ask how they are doing. But other than that, lets discuss work and be efficient. I don't want to sit there and get behind in my work talking about things I'd rather talk to my husband, friends, or family about.
    However, it has challenged some of my work-place relationships because my co-workers can become very close to each other, like best friends, and I can be considered to be more of the "quiet, standoffish" type.
    I feel like it really shouldn't be that way. It makes it so uncomfortable at work when your co-workers are best friends and you're there trying to get your job done so you can go home on time to your loved ones.
  5. by   Libby1987
    I think there are some extremes being compared here.

    My my coworkers are my team, we can talk about our kids or we can talk only about our relevant work but we are listening and connecting. The more you know someone's heart, even if just work related, the more you're going to feel on the same side. Kids and superficialities aren't necessary, we can focus on actions and behaviors at work and look for ways to lift each other up. Everyone is working hard and morale can improve with the smallest of validations.
  6. by   TheCommuter
    Quote from TSL7286
    There can become a point in a job where people get too personal.
    Bingo! This is called 'oversharing,' a.k.a. 'boundaryless sharing.' To get around this, you share something personal that you personally feel okay with disclosing.
    Quote from TSL7286
    I really don't like that "we are a family" BS at work. They aren't my family, they are my co-workers.
    I know they're not your family, but failing to treat your coworkers as if they're family while you're at work can result in relational problems down the line. Unfortunately, your coworkers want to be treated like family. Worded differently, they want to be validated. They want to be acknowledged as part of the group.
    Quote from TSL7286
    Also, please stop trying to show me pictures on your facebook or phone of your kids, I ain't got time for that in the middle of my shift.
    People feel validated and made whole when you show an interest in their children and families and personal lives, even if your interest is totally disingenuous. Yes, I know that human nature is bizarre, but that's the way it is.
    Quote from TSL7286
    I don't want to sit there and get behind in my work talking about things I'd rather talk to my husband, friends, or family about. However, it has challenged some of my work-place relationships because my co-workers can become very close to each other, like best friends, and I can be considered to be more of the "quiet, standoffish" type.
    Here's an enlightening reality: virtually nobody wants to talk endlessly about work while at work. Sometimes your coworker desperately needs to talk about that trip to Cancun, or the 10th wedding anniversary, or their child's birthday party to make it through the day. I know it sounds silly to those of us who do not obtain our validation through the workplace, but the sooner you realize this, the better.

    If you are a nurse with a solid work ethic, you will find yourself working with coworkers who only give 70 percent of their effort. And if your work ethic really is solid, other peoples’ laziness and lack of drive may drive you nuts. Although you feel these coworkers need to give their all (100 percent), you'll find internal peace the moment you realize that 70 percent is still passing.

    As an example, the public does not give a rat's behind about our coworker who made a post-op knee replacement patient wait 10 minutes for morphine because she spent that time chatting at the nurses station about her 10th wedding anniversary party. While this nurse is not putting 100 percent of her effort into her job, she is still ‘passing’ by most standards.

    On the other hand, the public is going to devour the story about a nurse who grossly neglected her patients for an the entirety of a 12 hour shift, and now one of those elderly patients has a pressure ulcer on her buttocks and thighs in the shape of the bedpan on which she sat for those 12 hours.

    So please realize that your coworker needed that extra 10 minute chat about her personal life in order to function optimally at work. She needed the validation that comes when others listened and cared about her personal life. She needed to feel as if she has a family at the workplace, even though her feelings might be illusory.
  7. by   VivaLaVespaGirl
    Social skills = YES. Great article and many true points.

    However, I feel like this discussion implies that there are only two types of people: those who do not care much for interacting with those they work with but who fake it, and those who like to socialize at work (to the detriment of their patients) because they lack an appropriate outlet outside of work.

    Granted my work experience is all office, but I believe that the majority of folks fall within those two extremes and like to socialize because they like to interact with others. They are not looking for validation of their life, feelings, or existence. They are not ignoring their important job duties, they are appropriate in their topic of conversation, and they genuinely want to connect with their coworkers. The reason being? Many people believe a friendly environment simply makes work more enjoyable.

    Please do not assume that, because I would like to talk to you, that I am pathetically lonely and need you to care about me so that I can make it through my day. Consider that I am genuinely interested in YOU.
  8. by   TheCommuter
    Quote from VivaLaVespaGirl
    I feel like this discussion implies that there are only two types of people: those who do not care much for interacting with those they work with but who fake it, and those who like to socialize at work (to the detriment of their patients) because they lack an appropriate outlet outside of work.
    When presenting a comparison, it is substantially easier for me to discuss the two polar extremes (read: socially inept versus social butterfly) rather than attempt to compare/contrast the majority of persons who lie squarely in the middle of these two extremes.
    Quote from VivaLaVespaGirl
    Please do not assume that, because I would like to talk to you, that I am pathetically lonely and need you to care about me so that I can make it through my day. Consider that I am genuinely interested in YOU.
    Of course, I never mentioned that all people in the workplace are pathetically lonely and need acknowledgement. However, we must remain cognizant that some people who fall into this category are the coworkers who work alongside us and the superiors who exert some control over our work lives.

    You've never had a nurse manager who was miserable because she had no friends, family, hobbies, pursuits or fulfilling life outside the workplace? Validate her. If not, proceed with extreme risk to your career.

    You've never had a coworker with boundary issues because she is experiencing marital discord and has an adult child with a substance abuse problem? Validate her.

    Of course I'm mindful that many people want to talk because they have a genuine interest in getting to know their fellow human. However, according to many of the posts I've seen in recent years, an alarming number of new and seasoned nurses fail to show any interest in their coworkers whatsoever and cannot seem to figure out why their workplace relations are plagued with issues.
  9. by   SubSippi
    It's more fun to be friends with people at work. We spend so much time together it would be weird not to know how many kids they had or their spouse's name.

    I have nothing against a quiet person. I guess I just don't understand why people would avoid becoming friends with their coworkers, just because they didn't meet them outside of the workplace.
  10. by   tnmarie
    Quote from SubSippi
    It's more fun to be friends with people at work. We spend so much time together it would be weird not to know how many kids they had or their spouse's name.

    I have nothing against a quiet person. I guess I just don't understand why people would avoid becoming friends with their coworkers, just because they didn't meet them outside of the workplace.
    I don't think it is necessarily that we don't want to be friends, some of us would rather just be doing our work (shocking, I know). The more time we spend schmoozing with our coworkers, the less patient care is being done. After all, we are being paid to provide patient care, not to socialize. That's not to say that I don't mind chatting during down time, but considering I care for 40+ residents and am the only licensed staff in the building on my shift, downtime doesn't really exist for me.

    That being said, I do understand what the OP is saying and I can fake it with the best of them.
  11. by   SHGR
    Quote from TheCommuter
    So please realize that your coworker needed that extra 10 minute chat about her personal life in order to function optimally at work.
    As always, TheCommuter, an insightful article and followup comments.
    I truly believe that social skills and E/I can be learned and honed (holding myself up as an example). Thanks for sharing helpful tips for how to go about it.
  12. by   SHGR
    Quote from SubSippi
    It's more fun to be friends with people at work. We spend so much time together it would be weird not to know how many kids they had or their spouse's name.

    I have nothing against a quiet person. I guess I just don't understand why people would avoid becoming friends with their coworkers, just because they didn't meet them outside of the workplace.
    I do separate "being friends with" and "being friendly with"- I keep close boundaries, I don't socialize much with coworkers outside of work, but I have very collegial relationships with them. I know people professionally at outside facilities and other sites in our health system (case managers, home care people, etc) that we do favors for our mutual patients, and our patients benefit from these relationships that we share. We're just not running buddies or drinking buddies.
  13. by   TheCommuter
    Quote from SHGR
    I truly believe that social skills and E/I can be learned and honed (holding myself up as an example).
    When you mentioned E/I, I assume that you are referring to emotional intelligence?
  14. by   Lev <3
    Great topic!

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