Carer key skills two

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: Patience

The Oxford English Dictionary defines patience as: 
*“The capacity to accept or tolerate delay, problems, or suffering without becoming annoyed or anxious.”*

In a social care context, patience is: Remaining calm and engaged as you support a person to communicate or work at their own pace in every aspect of their life.

Top tips for your practice

The gift of time

Giving the person you support your time is one of the most important aspects of providing care and support. Many older and/or mentally or physically disabled individuals will need considerably longer to communicate and participate/complete some or every aspect of day-to-day living.

The gift of time is often underestimated, but by giving time and remaining patient, you are showing the person respect, supporting their dignity and helping to form a trusting relationship with them.

Focus on the person

When a conversation or aspect of daily living is taking a long time to complete, you may find your mind wandering in numerous different directions, often skipping ahead to what you feel you need to be getting done.

Try to put this mental list-making to the back of your mind, as this will only fuel impatience. Instead endeavour to focus on the person, utilising your observational skills, maintaining eye-contact and using touch (if appropriate).

Combat impatience

If you know you’re prone to impatience, try to find a strategy that works to help you refocus and remain patient for longer. Some people find gentle deep breathing (not obvious frustrated breathing) or counting inside their head (never aloud) helpful. You may also want to investigate mindfulness techniques to help develop your capacity to be patient.

Skill Two: Empathy

The Oxford English Dictionary defines empathy as: 
*“The ability to understand and share the feelings of another.”*

In a social care context, empathy is: Being in the moment with the person, validating their experiences and emotions with warmth and compassion.

Top tips for your practice

Enter the person’s world

Empathy is the cornerstone of relationship-centred care. To be truly empathetic you need to be able to see the world from the point of view of the person you support, understanding their successes as well as their struggles.

Don’t dismiss something that is hugely important to the person even if it seems trivial to you. Providing a compassionate, reassuring and warm response to the person that makes them feel understood will help to build their trust and confidence in you as a professional and a friend.

Be an emotional support system

Being empathetic often means going on an emotional rollercoaster with the person you support, which will inevitably mean feeling some of those emotions yourself.

This can become draining if the person you are supporting is frequently emotional, so make sure you take time to look after your own well-being so that you can be the emotional support system that the person needs.

Bridge divides: Although there may be significant generational and cultural differences between you and the person you support, at heart you are both human beings with emotions and experiences that may have more similarities than you realise.

Focusing on what binds you together, rather than what divides you, can help to enhance your feelings of empathy towards the person you are supporting. Express this by projecting warmth in your body language, facial expressions and communication, and ensuring dignity, respect and friendliness are at the heart of your interactions.

Skill Three: Flexibility

The Oxford English Dictionary defines flexibility as: 
*“Willingness to change or compromise.”*

In a social care context, flexibility is: Adapting to the person’s needs and wishes and prioritising these.

Top tips for your practice

This is the person’s life

In everything you do as a professional carer, respecting the person’s choices and their right to control over their life is paramount.

Being flexible is a key component in choice and control because for the person to have true choice and control you will inevitably be required to adapt to what the person needs and wants in each moment, even when that is different to what you might have originally planned.

Embracing change

Being flexible may mean accepting a lot of change in a day. Try to approach each change of mind or plans as an opportunity, a chance to embrace something unexpected or different. By being positive, you will also be more open to learning from changes that may be beneficial in the future.

Pragmatic compromise

While for some people compromising can feel like backing down; it’s essential to guard against it affecting your confidence in yourself or your professional abilities. Remember that the very best social care professionals are masters at being flexible, realising that in such a human-focused sector the need to adapt in a dignified and considerate way is vital.

Skill Four: Creativity

The Oxford English Dictionary defines creativity as: 
*“The use of imagination or original ideas to create something; inventiveness.”*

In a social care context, creativity is: Innovating in every aspect of your care and support provision, particularly when you encounter difficult situations or problems you are struggling to solve.

Top tips for your practice

Creativity isn’t just arty

Many people mistake creativity for artistic flair. Creativity in social care has many different interpretations – they may be artistic, but they may also be about trying different communication techniques, ways of engaging a person you support with something they might enjoy, or even a creative way to support someone who is struggling with personal care.

Be brave

Creativity doesn’t come naturally to everyone, but it is a skill you can learn and build on. Often what holds back individuals who don’t believe they are creative is embarrassment and fear, but be brave.

The hardest step is usually the first one when you try to incorporate creativity into your practice, to begin with. Keep those initial creative interventions, changes or ideas small so that they are easier to focus on and feel more achievable.

Once you’ve begun being more creative, it will get easier, and over time by making a continual effort to be creative, it will feel more natural and become more spontaneous.

Don’t give up

Creative people don’t give up when the first thing they try doesn’t work out. They use their creative mind to reflect: can they do the first thing differently, at a different time, in a different place or different circumstances, and alongside that, is there something else they can do, and something else after that? Train your mind to see a world of possibilities, adaptations and learning opportunities that enhance the person’s wellbeing and maintaining their dignity at heart.

Skill Five: Responsiveness

The Oxford English Dictionary defines responsiveness as: 
*“The quality of reacting quickly and positively.”*

In a social care context, responsiveness is: Using your observational skills and knowledge of the person you are supporting to provide an optimal reaction that is supportive to the person.

Top tips for your practice

Know the person

Your knowledge of the person is key in how responsive you will be towards them. When you are employed by a live-in carer agency you will have full details of your care recipient, but it will still take time to build up additional knowledge when you are a new live-in carer for any individual. By spending extra time with the person, gathering as much information as possible from them, their family and any carer whose shift you are taking over, researching the person’s life story (if they are happy to share this information) and focusing on your observational skills, you will build up a more complete picture as every day passes.

Learn to make good judgements

Stepping in when the person requires your support and stepping back when they don’t is a key component in being a responsive and respectful professional. This will only come with time, and possibly some trial and error, but by learning to make good judgements you will help to maximise the person’s independence.

Review and reflect

Always keep your responses under review. Make sure you’re getting the level of support you’re providing just right to ensure that the person’s safety and dignity aren’t compromised.

Your response may need to change throughout any given situation, and how you responded yesterday may not be how you need to respond today. As well as reviewing your responsiveness during interactions, make sure you reflect on it too so that you don’t lose any important learning opportunities.

Skill Six: Confidence

The Oxford English Dictionary defines confidence as: 
*“A feeling of self-assurance arising from an appreciation of one’s own abilities or qualities.”*

In a social care context, confidence is: Believing and trusting in your professional skills in a way that helps to foster the same belief and trust in the person you support and their family.

Top tips for your practice

Think positively

Confidence breeds confidence. If you think negatively, you’ll feel negative and behave negatively. Try to begin the day with positive thoughts, perhaps by focusing on your accomplishments. This will give you a more confident mindset and approach, which will be reflected in your attitude, your body language, your verbal communication and your overall practice.

Be mindful of your own health and wellbeing too, guarding against becoming run down, stressed, anxious or depressed, as all of these factors will impact upon your overall abilities and your confidence in yourself.

Dignified and respectful confidence

Confident people aren’t arrogant or bossy. True confidence comes from being a consummate professional, dignified and respectful towards the person you support and their family at all times. Humility (the quality of being modest) is something to nurture if you feel, or have had feedback, that your confident nature is over-exuberant.

Never stop learning

It’s a common misconception that confident people don’t need to learn and never seek support. The truth is that reflecting on what could have gone better in any given situation or interaction will help you to learn about what you could change or improve upon next time.

When you identify areas of your practice that need additional development, research ways to boost your knowledge through formal or informal learning opportunities.

Further reading

Social Care Institute for Excellence

Skills for Care

National Institute for Health and Care Excellence

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