15 Essential Skills You Need to Become a Nurse

Considering a career in nursing? Find out if you possess the right skillset!

Reviewed by Chris Leitch

Essential Nurse Skills

This article contains affiliate links. If you use these links to buy something, we may earn commission.

Choosing to become a nurse is a big commitment. It can be emotionally draining, the hours are long, and you can be exposed to some incredibly stressful situations. But it’s also hugely rewarding, with the ability to take your qualifications to the highest paying countries for nurses in the world and the opportunity to progress within a number of potential specialisms.

If you’re interested in pursuing a career in this life-changing and highly sought-after profession, here are just a few of the essential skills that you’ll need to make the grade.

1. Communication

The ability to communicate effectively is presumably the singular most important skill in any workplace, but even more so in a hospital. Whether you’re working on a general ward, in a frantic trauma team or as a midwife in a birthing room, being able to convey and receive information calmly and quickly, whether written or verbal, can literally be a matter of life and death.

Correctly documenting patient and treatment information is equally important, as these notes can be used as legal evidence in court if needed. And if you don’t give a thorough handover to the next shift, mistakes can be made and patient safety can be compromised.

2. Decision making

Nursing has undergone a massive transition in the last 30 years, and as the levels of professionalism and training have increased, so too have the levels of responsibility. That means that in some instances, registered nurses (RNs) may be expected to make certain calls based on their own opinion and analysis.

On these occasions, it’s critical to exercise solid decision-making skills, as the consequences could potentially have serious affects. The situation might also be time-sensitive, or it could be within a high-pressure environment.

3. Attention to detail

It’s vital to be aware of the finer details when working closely with drug doses and administrations. It can be easy to make a mistake, especially when you’re 10 hours into a hectic shift. As an RN, you’re legally required to check serial numbers, batch numbers and expiry dates, and you need to be able to spot when something is amiss.

Possessing attention to detail can also help you identify certain behavioural patterns or symptoms in patients that could potentially be a red flag. For example, if you overlook something important during an initial consultation, you could be scrutinised and even face legal action for professional negligence.

4. Confidence

In a clinical setting, confidence is not about thinking that you know everything, but about having faith in your abilities and training.

Giving the impression of assuredness is important, too, especially in patient interactions. If you appear nervous when you’re about to perform a basic procedure, the patient will be left feeling apprehensive. However, if you portray yourself as calm and confident (even if underneath the surface you’re not), then this will immediately put them at ease and make them more compliant.

5. Adaptability

In a practical sense, flexibility as a nurse can mean working in different wards or hospitals, or being called in last minute to cover a shift. But it also highlights the need to get to grips with your surroundings as quickly as possible.

In addition, nurses need to be robust and able to handle a lot, so having the ability to adapt accordingly to any given situation is highly useful. Whether it’s comforting a scared child or elderly person, dealing with violent and threatening behaviour from an unstable patient, or helping a new mother through childbirth, you’ll be expected to react to the situation quickly.

6. Physical and mental stamina

As previously mentioned, nurses work long hours, with many unable to take the breaks that they need. You could be on your feet non-stop in a busy ward for 12 hours at a time, meaning that you need to be physically fit for the rigours of the role.

You must also be mentally strong. As a healthcare professional, you’ll inevitably be exposed to things that will upset you, but you need to remain professional and able to function in your role. This can be difficult, especially with the varied nature of what you could witness on any given shift. While experience and colleague support can offset this, you should still be fully aware of the exhausting nature of the job — both in terms of body and mind.

7. Organisation

It’s highly likely that you will be managing multiple patients at any one time, as well as performing other duties that may be required of you such as medication checks, audits and professional development tasks. Therefore, it’s vital for you to be able to stay on top of everything.

Possessing organizational skills is one of the biggest requisites for a successful career in the field, and managing your workload properly and effectively will reduce the likelihood of becoming overwhelmed and stressed.

8. Teamwork

No employability checklist would be complete without mentioning the need to work well with others, and nursing is no different.

Aside from working with other nurses, you’ll also need to liaise with a variety of other medical professionals, such as doctors, paramedics and healthcare assistants. In a more acute setting, this could be within a trauma team, where working quickly and effectively and understanding yours and everybody else’s role is absolutely key to a patient’s survival.

9. Diplomacy

Diplomacy is a very convenient skill for a nurse, especially when dealing with particularly difficult patients (or even colleagues). Knowing how to read and manage people can make it easier to get what you need, especially when you’re short on time or resources.

Being diplomatic also means being patient, too, which is an essential component of a nurse’s armoury. There will be times when you feel like pulling your hair out or snapping at that old lady who won’t let you cannulate her, but losing your cool will not get results. It’s about having the ability to remain charming and friendly and doing what needs to be done — even if you need to go and scream in the store cupboard for a couple of minutes afterwards.

10. Leadership

Leadership might not be the most obvious entry on this list, but it plays a big part in a nurse’s career, nonetheless. You’ll frequently be required to take charge of situations, utilising your knowledge and experience accordingly. This might involve guiding less-experienced colleagues through the normal steps of a procedure or taking the lead when there’s not a doctor available.

As you rise through the ranks, it could also involve managing a department or a ward. Many nurses progress on to non-clinical roles and build up impressive leadership and management portfolios in the process.

11. Discretion

Nurses are trusted with sensitive information, such as medical records and personal details that may be disclosed by patients. Both on an ethical and legal basis, you’re required to treat such information with confidentiality.

As such, discussing a patient’s information with another healthcare provider that’s not involved in the case, or worse, your family and friends, is a major red flag and could also be illegal. Respecting your patients’ privacy and handling medical data with the utmost discretion, then, is not only an essential skill but also your duty as a nurse.

12. Work ethic

Nursing is a challenging career path that comes with immense responsibility. Your work and responsibilities will often revolve around your patients as you’re responsible for overseeing their wellbeing, comfort and health.

Your work ethic and commitment to your job will play an instrumental role here. Arriving late for work, leaving tasks undone and not paying close attention to your patients’ needs could not only make you ineffective within your role but could also have serious repercussions for your patients.

13. Interpersonal

Interpersonal skills are an invaluable asset for all healthcare professionals, but especially nurses who are often the first contact for patients, their relatives and friends.

Empathy, compassion and emotional intelligence are all vital qualities for a nurse, especially in situations where you may need to deliver difficult news, and comfort patients and their loved ones. Having interpersonal skills will not only allow you to connect with others on a human level but also make you more interpretative and anticipant of their needs.

14. Conflict resolution

Another essential skill to possess as a nurse is conflict resolution. Nurses must collaborate with multiple groups of people, including doctors, other nurses and patients. And working closely with others, especially in a high-stress environment such as a hospital or clinic, can result in conflict caused by a differing values, attitudes and expectations.

It’s during these instances that you may need to step in as a facilitator who can defuse a situation and avoid conflict. This requires good communication, initiative and proactiveness, all of which will contribute to a successful conflict resolution.

15. Multitasking

Finally, nurses are defined by the fact that they constantly have their hands full.

You’ll be required to manage multiple patients at the same time, ensuring all the relevant paperwork and any drug administrations are watertight, as well as performing various clinical procedures as necessary. And unless you can multitask effectively, it’s likely that you’ll trip yourself up at some point, making your job 10 times harder.

Final thoughts

As you can see, nursing is not for everyone; a multitude of highly sought-after skills are needed just to survive day to day.

The good news, though, is that nobody expects you to be the finished article on straight away. Nursing is very much an ongoing education, with even the most experienced nurses learning new things each day. If you’re caring, compassionate and willing to work hard, though, then that should be enough to start.

Further nursing advice:

What do you think are the most important skills that a nurse needs to succeed? Let us know in the comments section below!