Carer key skills one

By care expert, Beth Britton


As a professional carer, we value you and want to support you to be effective in your work, both for your benefit and the benefit of the person you are supporting and their family.

In this guide, we will explain best practice in the key skills that underpin working in social care. Our aim is that this resource will help you to continue with your professional development, enhance your understanding, and give you practical tips and advice that you can easily incorporate into your practice.


What are key skills?

The importance of key skills in social care: 

Key skills are the foundation for all of the care and support that you provide. They unlock a world of possibility, positivity and relationship-based care and support – underpinned with dignity and respect – that is mutually beneficial. In essence, many of these skills are quite basic, understanding how to practice them and to be consistent in your approach is vitally important for you and the person you support.

No matter how experienced you are as a carer the need to refine your key skills never ends, which we hope will make this guide a go-to resource for you now and in the years ahead.

How key skills benefit you, the professional carer

Understanding and continually practising key skills will enable you to offer the highest standards of professional care and support, helping you to form a meaningful bond with the person you support, giving you confidence, and making you feel better equipped for any difficulties or challenges that arise.

Key skills will help you to bridge any generational or cultural differences between yourself and the person you support, and ultimately make your role more enjoyable. Every one of these skills feeds into creating those positive human interactions that make working in social care such a rewarding career.

How key skills benefit the person you are supporting

While the person you support won’t necessarily know what these skills are, they will certainly know if you’re practising them. Key skills enhance the care experience by making it more personal, helping the person to feel a connection to you, and in turn, is giving the person you support and their family greater confidence in the care and support you are providing.

These skills help to make a professional a friend and show the person that you genuinely care about them, want to support them and understand what is important to them.

Skill One: Observation

The Oxford English Dictionary defines observations as:

*“The action or process of closely observing or monitoring something or someone.”*

In a social care context, observation is: Noticing and recognising everything about the person you support (think facial expressions, body language and behaviour) and everything that is happening in their environment.

Top tips for your practice

Rethink observation

We all observe in our daily lives, but how well we really look, process the information we gain, and use it to improve the care and support we provide in our work can vary hugely. Beware of taking observation for granted – in most interactions even the most observant professionals will miss something.

Actively observe

Make a conscious effort to observe. Instead of just walking into the kitchen, lounge or bedroom of the person you are supporting, observe what is happening in that room by visually scanning it.

Take in as much detail as you can about the person but be discreet. Observation should never make the person you support feel uncomfortable, so always be mindful of the person’s dignity and maintaining a respectful presence.

Remember too, that the person’s environment can have a big impact on what you are observing about that person, and therefore an equally big impact in how you will need to respond.

Take notice of subtle clues

Most people find it easy to pick out the eye-catching elements in their observations but remember to look for subtle observations too.

Consciously look for body language that communicates a need (like a need for the toilet), and signs of distress that may not be obviously expressed. Equally, observe what is helping the person you support to feel happy and contented – you’ll want to reflect on that and replicate it.

Skill Two: Reflection

The Oxford English Dictionary defines reflection as:

*“Serious thought or consideration.”*

In a social care context, reflection is: Thinking about what you’ve said and done to learn what has gone well, what hasn’t gone well, and what you can change for next time (or need to share with the carer you’re handing over to).

Top tips for your practice:

Reflect daily

Reflective practice is the most crucial learning opportunity you will have in your day-to-day practice, providing you with invaluable insights to help you tailor the care and support you’re providing.

It’s especially valuable for you as a private live-in carer because you won’t have that daily contact with colleagues when you work for a live-in carer agency, whom you can share your experiences with and learn from, so avoid dismissing it as an optional add-on.

Actively reflect

Although some professional carers are able to reflect ‘on the go’, most carers reflect more meaningfully by taking some time to reflect actively. This might be during a quiet time in the day, perhaps when the person you support is having a nap, or some carers even reflect during a trip to the loo or while they’re taking a shower! On particularly busy days you may need to be creative in finding time to reflect.

Get the balance right

The time you spend on reflective practice is down to your personal preference – it needs to be long enough to incorporate everything you need to reflect on, but not so long you lose focus or spend time away from the person you are supporting. Work on getting the balance right so that both you and the person you support benefit.

Skill Three: Listening

The Oxford English Dictionary defines listening as:

*“Giving one’s attention to a sound.”*

In a social care context, listening is: Giving your time and full concentration to what the person is communicating to you, whether it’s words, sounds or any other vocal expression that the person makes.

Top tips for your practice:


As a multitasking carer you may find that you have numerous thoughts in your head, all of which can become a barrier to actually hearing what the person is saying. Put all other thoughts on hold and really concentrate on what the person is trying to communicate to you.

Avoid jumping ahead

As the person is communicating, you may find your mind is already jumping ahead to how you will respond or what you need to do.

Stop! Be patient, respectful and keep your focus on the person until they have finished communicating to ensure that you avoid missing vital details. You can then formulate your response by pausing after the person has finished communicating with you.


What the person says, and what they might really mean or need may be very different. The clues that can help you understand the person’s needs could be very subtle, for example, hesitating or stumbling over a word or phrase, or jumbling words up.

If the person communicates with sounds rather than words, a change in pitch, rhythm or intensity may be the clue you need to understand the person’s needs more comprehensively. For example, in an interaction where you are trying to discover if the person is in pain, a more acute sound when you press a certain area might indicate pain is felt there.

Remember to combine your listening with observation to help with your interpretation of the person’s communication – there may be additional clues in the person’s body language that will help you.

Skill Four: Positioning

The Oxford English Dictionary defines positioning as:

*“A particular way in which someone or something is placed or arranged.”*

In a social care context, positioning is: Ensuring you position yourself in relation to the person you support in a way that enables you to interact as equals.

Top tips for your practice:

Avoid controlling positioning

In a hectic day, when you just want to ask the person you are supporting what they’d like or need, you may think that how you position yourself won’t matter much. However, positioning yourself above the person you are supporting is a very disrespectful, controlling position that is disempowering for the person.

Being above the person, and effectively talking down to them, suggests that you assume authority over the person. Avoid this type of negative interaction by continually checking your positioning and adjusting it when necessary.

Be level or lower

Until proper positioning becomes second nature to you, always ask yourself: Am I at the same level or lower than the person I’m supporting? If the person is sitting, you should either pull up a chair and sit next to them (to be at their level) or kneel down (to be lower).

Understand the person’s vulnerability: When the person you’re supporting is in bed, they are at their most vulnerable. It would help if you avoided standing over the person as this can be incredibly intimidating. Instead ensure that your positioning puts you at the person’s level or lower, which may often mean you’ll need to kneel down.

Skill Five: Eye Contact

The Oxford English Dictionary defines eye-contact as:

*“The state in which two people are aware of looking directly into one another’s eyes.”*

In a social care context, eye-contact is: Meeting the person’s gaze and creating a connection through direct interaction.

Top tips for your practice:

Banish discomfort

Many people feel uncomfortable looking someone in the eye, even someone they know well. However, eye contact is a crucial part of successful interactions as it helps the person to know you’re ready and entirely focused on communicating with them.

This is even more important if the person you’re interacting with finds communication difficult, as it’s subtle clues like eye-contact that will help to engage the person, support their expression and encourage their communication.

Avoid staring

Making eye-contact isn’t about staring into the person’s soul. You are aiming to create a reassuring, empathetic feeling for the person that is dignified and respectful. If you think you’re in danger of staring, move your eye-contact away briefly and ‘reset’ yourself.

Combine with positive body language

Eye contact works best when it’s combined with other positive elements that back up those feelings of connectivity. Your overall face should be bright and engaged (think warm smiles), and your body language should be friendly and relaxed. You’re aiming to make the person feel at the centre of your interaction with them and totally at ease with you.

Skill Six: Touch

The Oxford English Dictionary defines touch as:

*“To bring into mutual contact.”*

In a social care context, touch is: Using an appropriate touch (for example on the hand, arm, knee or face) or hug to provide reassurance and friendship for the person you’re supporting.

Top tips for your practice:

Know the person’s preferences

While touch is one of the principal ways in which to personalise your care and support, it’s also one of the most emotive. Some people will need touch to help to calm them or show them that you are empathising with them, but for others, it will be something that makes them feel extremely uncomfortable. Therefore, before using touch in any interaction, make sure you know the preferences of the person you’re supporting.

Be led by the person

Some people who want or need touch to be part of their interactions will want very light touch, a gentle pat on the arm perhaps, whilst for others, a hand massage or a warm hug is needed.

Because there is no one-size-fits-all, you will need to be led by the person you’re supporting as to what feels right for them. Reassess this regularly and remain flexible – a person’s needs may change over time, leading them to want more or less touch.

Banish fear

Many professional carers are put off from incorporating touch into their interactions because they are afraid it will be deemed inappropriate, even when the person is actively seeking the reassurance that touch brings.

Whilst you must always be mindful of professional standards, dignity and respect for the person, and all appropriate safeguarding procedures, there is no need to be afraid of using touch so long as it fits within all of these parameters.

Further reading

Social Care Institute for Excellence

Skills for Care

National Institute for Health and Care Excellence

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