The skills and qualities that make outstanding nurses

The skills and qualities that make outstanding nurses


Many people make the discovery later on in life that they could be working in a role that is more personally fulfilling. Pursuing a career that is suited to your strengths and personal inclinations increases your job satisfaction, productivity, and the likelihood of remaining in that job. It is therefore useful to explore your options and be open to retraining and changing your career path – after all, it’s never too late to change! Below, we’ll set out a series of qualities and skills that could make you suited to the noble profession of nursing.

In the following paragraphs, we will explore how pre-existing skills and qualities come to life when they are practiced and honed through their professional application. Technical skills unique to nursing must, of course, be formally learned, but the aptitudes needed in the profession are often ones that we have learned in our personal lives. Transferring these qualities across to professional healthcare work is essential to providing the best possible care to patients.

To help you realize your possible potential, we have put together this list of key qualities that make good nurses. Those who recognize themselves in these descriptions, or who feel inspired to learn more, might seriously want to consider nursing as a new career.

If you do, then you are in luck, as there are now countless ways that you can train and gain your professional qualification. Thanks to the availability of online degrees that can be studied flexibly from home, there has never been a better time to explore your potential and finally enjoy working!

The skills and qualities that make exceptional nurses

Let’s begin with a distinction: nursing requires many technical skills, which you must be fully trained to carry out. These include but are not limited to measuring and administering medicines, understanding patients’ medical charts and test results, performing medical procedures, and many more. However, nurses also require proficiency in so-called ‘soft skills’, which include effective and compassionate interpersonal skills and the ability to build relationships with those around you.

Nursing is an immensely rewarding and satisfying career in spite of its well-documented stressors, often because of the meaningful relationships that nurses develop with their patients and colleagues.

In addition, nursing offers a continually developing career path with a raft of generous benefits packages and the option to select from (and train further for) a multitude of specialisms.

So, without further ado, here are the essential skills and qualities that go into the making of an outstanding nurse.


One might call this ‘bedside manner’ – the art of calmly tending to, talking with, and listening to patients who may be very frightened, distressed or depressed by their illness or condition – knowing when to be quiet and listen attentively, to make the patient more physically comfortable, to call for colleague assistance, or to speak words of understanding in a way that the patient comprehends. This skill fosters trust between patient and nurse and helps to ensure that the patient’s wellbeing and individual needs and wants are at the heart of medical decision-making.

Blending ‘informed improvisation’ with knowledge to solve problems

Many of us have had the experience of needing to tighten a screw without having a screwdriver to hand, and have improvised a solution by, say, using the edge of a coin to do the job. Knowledge of the issue is crucial in underpinning improvisation, but resourcefulness and imagination are incredibly valuable in this role. There will inevitably be unusual challenges ahead in patient care, and being able to improvise an informed solution in any circumstances you find yourself in could literally be a lifesaver.

The art of anticipation

Many people have the ability to intuit a ‘next step’ in a series of interactions. This aptitude takes multiple forms – from sensing what someone is about to say before they have spoken, to moving in swiftly to help a pressured colleague before a probable mishap arises, to, on occasions, life-saving interventions with patients approaching a medical crisis. It is rooted in the ability to understand and track unique patterns – and then act to prevent a potentially life-threatening crisis from erupting.


The intuitive qualities described above need to be coupled with the self-assuredness that’s necessary for their practical implementation. This a form of confidence that rests upon both self-knowledge – the knowledge that you’re the kind of person who can be depended upon in a crisis – and technical know-how. In other words, it’s a fusion of an intrinsic predisposition and expert training, which can only be acquired by graduation from a high-quality nursing program. Let’s take a short interlude at this point to explore what this might consist of.

Training to become a nurse

For anyone who recognizes their own aptitudes in this article, if you think that you may have the requisite qualities to become a nurse, then you may well be right to pursue that idea further. Thankfully, there is now no need to attend a higher education institution to complete a full-time campus-based professional nurse training course, which, for many, is impractical due to personal and professional commitments.

Today, well-established centers of higher academic excellence such as Chicago’s Elmhurst University are offering bachelor’s degrees, master’s degrees and doctorates on an online basis. With the exception of the practice placements (which the university will help online students find, at a location within traveling distance of where they live), courses such as Elmhurst’s accelerated BSN nursing program (Accelerated Bachelor of Science in Nursing) can be studied from home with a laptop and Wi-Fi connection. The accelerated program allows online students with a prior bachelor’s degree to graduate within 16 months, opening the doors to an extraordinary new professional life.

Now, let’s return to those key skills and qualities.

Effective assessment

Anyone can look briefly at a problem and think that they have the remedy, but rather fewer can do so and actually come up with a viable solution. Nurses are at the forefront of patient care and often have to look, listen and think fast when a clinical or a ward problem presents itself. They must often rapidly assess problems in situ. Nurses have to draw on their underlying expertise to fill in the blanks – perhaps with patients who are unable to give a full account of their problem. This entails evaluating visual and auditory data as fully and swiftly as possible. An ability to notice details rapidly can help nurses build up a picture of what may be causing the patient’s distress or presenting symptoms.

The art of effective communication

As has often been noted, a good communicator is someone who not only speaks well, but also listens and observes well. This is important for colleagues, forming part of the essential ‘glue’ that makes effective teamwork possible on a busy ward. It is especially important for patients, who may find that their ability to understand and communicate has been compromised by illness, fear or depression.

A good communicator will notice the signs of incomprehension or discomfort and rephrase a query or statement in a way that is tactful, comprehensible and empathetic. It involves asking the right questions so that assessments are conducted efficiently and with as little disruption or distress to patients and their visitors as possible. When questioning, there needs to be a balance between sensitivity and scrupulous medical assessment so that provisional diagnoses can be quickly confirmed or refuted and passed on the relevant departments to be actioned.

Nurses must also consider potential barriers to communication that might include but are not limited to hearing/speech impairment and impediment, cognitive disability, and non-native language speaking. If a patient is very young, then they will not understand medical terminology and will need information ‘translated’ for them. All of these potential barriers must be navigated by a nurse with efficiency and compassion.

The capacity for fellow feeling and self-discipline

We have decided to combine these two seemingly unrelated qualities for one reason: one in the absence of the other will often be ineffective. While nurses have deservedly acquired a reputation for compassion or fellow feeling, this alone is insufficient to function as an effective nurse.

Take, for example, a young teacher who empathizes so deeply with the troubled backgrounds of their pupils that the tougher work of maintaining classroom discipline (so that all of the children can learn) is negatively affected. Compassion in this scenario becomes a liability because it has been unmoored from authority, which children arguably need as much as understanding in order to thrive.

Of course, nurses don’t ‘discipline’ their patients, but they do require self-discipline – the self-discipline that comes from both their expert knowledge and from their personal aptitudes. It takes self-discipline to complete a nursing degree successfully, for example, but it also enters into clinical practice. Being able to feel your way into someone else’s shoes during patient care is exceptionally valuable and important, but without self-discipline, you can overidentify with a specific patient’s distress or condition to the detriment of other, equally deserving patients. Appropriate limits can be set to one’s empathy, and necessary clinical actions and duties carried out fairly and effectively.

Nursing is a tough environment and hard decisions are made all the time. In order to provide the best care for the most patients, it is necessary to be self-disciplined in your nursing practice.

The ability to manage time

On a busy ward, a nurse will be expected to care for multiple patients efficiently, empathetically and accurately in any one shift. This isn’t as straightforward as it might sound – a pediatric ward might cater only for children, for example, but each child patent will have different needs, different medical conditions requiring different care inputs and treatment, and different temperaments. The same will be true of an oncology ward, a surgical ward, and so on.

In straightforward language, a nurse has a lot of work to oversee and undertake in any given shift. And this, in turn, means that the ability to prioritize patient care by managing every minute spent on the ward efficiently is of paramount importance to ensure that proper care is indeed delivered. The ability to create a working hierarchy of different tasks and their urgency (i.e., treatment, comfort, hygiene) is crucial, as none of these can be overlooked, though they can be ranked in priority.


This refers not only to physical stamina – a great deal of lifting, standing, walking and general physical work will be required in a typical shift – but also to psychological and emotional resilience. Keeping on an even emotional keel is conducive to good patient care, especially when upsets will inevitably arise.

The determination to get back in the saddle is crucial to effective nursing. Naturally, a supportive team will be of immense value in scenarios such as this, but so will one’s own personal fortitude – an important quality for prospective nurses to possess or develop.

Getting the work-life balance right

As should be clear by now, nursing is an immensely rewarding and fulfilling career, but it can also be exhausting and even distressing at times. As in any high-intensity career, burnout is possible and steps taken to prevent this are essential.

One way of combating this is not only to continue on a training/professional development trajectory (expertise can always be further deepened, honed and expanded upon throughout your career), but also to ensure that you maintain a heathy work-life balance. This means taking your allocated vacation days regularly and ensuring that you recharge your batteries after work, whether by practicing yoga at home, going to the movies with the family as often as possible, or joining a karate or CrossFit class and keeping fit! Self-care routines are essential and are just as important as your hard work and commitment to nursing.

Exercise, it should be emphasized, is known to help cleanse the body of stress-related chemical by-products and can therefore increase one’s mental and physical health and wellbeing.

As mentioned at the beginning of this article, many of the qualities and abilities listed here may already be present to varying degrees in people doing unrelated work who are nonetheless seeking a career that utilizes them more fully. When people begin seeking something else, it’s sometimes a sign that the path they have chosen isn’t exciting or fulfilling or inspiring enough for the long term. Abilities tend to grow the more they are utilized and nourished, and careers that do this are worth serious consideration.

Nursing is one such profession, and those reading through the above paragraphs and seeing themselves in several (or all) of the skills and qualities mentioned may well find that they’re drawn to its many possibilities far more strongly than they are to their existing employment.

People mostly do their utmost to make the best of their circumstances and opportunities, so there’s certainly no shame in discovering that one might have taken a wrong turn and embarked on a career or occupation that is not quite right. It’s perhaps impossible to know in advance with any confidence whether a role is the ‘right’ one. However, thankfully, it’s more possible than ever before to remedy the situation if one comes to the conclusion that an existing job just isn’t working out.

If nursing inspires anyone reading this article, then it may be because they already possess, in perhaps ‘embryonic’ or raw form, many of the qualities described here. In this case, exploring options such as taking an accelerated BSN degree online could prove to be not only a ‘game-changer’, but also a ‘life-changer’.

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