10 Skills To Be a Psychologist and Excel in Your Career
Updated 29 March 2023
Psychologists often develop a broad skill set throughout their education and work experience to succeed in their field. Developing excellent interpersonal skills and expert technical expertise is essential for those hoping to pursue a career in psychology, as you may work with a variety of people, including colleagues and patients. Understanding the skills you may need to be a psychologist is a great place to begin to develop these skills. In this article, we discuss some of the important skills to be a psychologist and share insight into how they relate to the role.
Top 10 skills to be a psychologist
There are several key skills that you may need to be a psychologist. Alongside formal education qualifications, developing your skills can help you succeed in a psychology career. Explore this list of essential competencies:
Knowledge of psychology
Psychologists rely on their strong understanding of psychological theories and practices to confidently perform their daily duties. They apply psychological theories and established techniques to analyse and diagnose patients, so it's essential that they gain in-depth knowledge of psychology during their education. To ensure their knowledge remains up to date with the latest research and trends, psychologists often read recognised psychology publications and research papers. Remaining curious about human behaviour and maintaining interest in new research allows psychologists to understand and apply new theories, tools and techniques in their practice.
Counselling and communication skills
Communication is an essential skill in many fields and, for psychologists, it's critical to have strong communication skills to help their clients. For example, they may rely on verbal communication and the ability to understand the non-verbal cues from clients when they're counselling them. Having strong written communication skills is equally important for research psychologists to effectively describe their findings. Communication skills include a variety of specific abilities. Some of the competencies necessary to be a psychologist include:
Active listening: With active listening, you are better able to provide your full attention to clients and respond appropriately.
Ability to adapt your communication style: As each client may respond better to a different approach, adapting your communication style to a person's individual needs is essential. With this skill, you can help more people and ensure they feel comfortable in your care.
Empathy: Because you may discuss sensitive topics with clients, it's important that you can practise empathy and be considerate of their feelings by imagining and seeking to understand what they must be experiencing.
Sensitive questioning: Sensitive questioning is essential to gain an in-depth understanding of a client. While it may be necessary for psychologists to ask probing questions, it's also important to be cautious and observe clients' non-verbal cues to establish if they may be approaching a sensitive subject.
Read more: What Are Communication Skills?
It can take long periods of time to see progress in psychology. When working in research, studies can run for many years. Working directly with patients also requires patience. Especially when clients do a great job of implementing the changes and solutions you discuss into their daily lives, they may expect overnight changes. Psychologists are responsible for managing these expectations and must remain patient as they track patients' progress towards specific goals.
Psychologists often conduct extensive research in the field of psychology. Reviewing what other psychologists have experienced can help inform a psychologist's decisions relating to their own clients' treatment. With many scientific papers and journals available, psychologists can utilise these materials to support their practice. However, evaluating the accuracy and reliability of research materials is imperative to ensure tools and techniques are effective before using them on patients. During their training, psychologists learn how to analyse research using professional and ethical tools to establish the relevance of studies to their work.
Research psychologists conduct experiments themselves, so researching whether a study has already been done and comparing results to similar studies is important. By reviewing previous studies, research psychologists can identify potential flaws, pre-empt problems that could arise and make informed hypotheses about their research.
Understanding of ethics
It's common for psychologists to work with individuals who may be in vulnerable situations, so having strong moral values and an understanding of ethics is important. These skills can help them ensure they make the right decisions to protect patients' safety and well-being. It's imperative to maintain a professional relationship with clients and to build trust by maintaining patients' privacy at all times. Sensitive subjects may arise during discussions with patients, and it's essential that psychologists respect patient confidentiality by not sharing this information with anyone else.
Equally, psychologists may need to take safeguarding measures to ensure their patients' safety when necessary. Understanding their legal and moral duty to protect vulnerable clients is an important part of a psychologist's role.
Strong observation skills
Because of their training, psychologists often use careful observation to recognise non-verbal cues that can help to indicate how a person is feeling and how they may react to certain situations. Psychologists use these skills when working directly with patients and when conducting research experiments and studies.
Strong observation skills are particularly helpful when an individual may not be able to verbalise how they feel or if they are not yet ready to divulge parts of their story to their psychologist. By observing their patients, psychologists can adjust their approach and build an understanding of an individual to help encourage them to communicate more freely.
Ability to remain calm in stressful situations
As psychologists work with those who may struggle with their mental health, it's important that they be able to remain calm in high-stress situations. Clients can behave irrationally and so being able to calmly de-escalate and resolve tense moments is essential. When working directly with clients, psychologists remain professional even when discussing sensitive or traumatic subjects. Depending on your speciality, you may even work with patients in crises. Keeping calm in these difficult circumstances is crucial to helping patients work through their problems.
Analysis and critical thinking
Alongside observation skills, psychologists who have an awareness of an individual's environment and can analyse how these external factors can affect their wellbeing are likely better able to assist their clients. Through formal education, research and experience, psychologists understand how different circumstances can affect people. With this understanding, psychologists can analyse their patients to establish why they behave the way they do and how individuals can make changes to improve their mental health.
For example, an individual may have developed negative habits because of the environment they were raised in. Establishing the underlying cause of a person's habits and thinking critically about how this affects the decisions they make can help psychologists understand how someone thinks and feels. This ability can help psychologists advise patients on positive changes that can improve their mental health.
As with many professions, using technology is typically part of the daily duties of a psychologist. Some of the necessary IT skills for psychologists include using spreadsheets and word processing programs and corresponding with others via email. However, psychologists who operate their own practice may rely more heavily on IT. For example, they may need to understand and operate separate systems for patient management, appointment administration and accounting.
Those working in research may need to develop more advanced IT skills, as they'll typically be working with large data sets and have a need to create reports or presentations based on their findings. More advanced IT skills, such as using statistical software and data visualisation tools, are necessary for those pursuing a career in research psychology.
Related: IT Skills: Definitions and Examples
Ability to set boundaries
Being able to develop trust and build professional relationships with their clients is an important aspect of a psychologist's job. It's also important to set and maintain healthy boundaries with their clients, as having boundaries aligns with the moral and ethical responsibilities in psychology. For example, relationships must remain strictly professional between a psychologist and their patients, so the development of a romantic relationship would likely be unethical. One way psychologists can set boundaries is by not allowing patients to connect with them on social media. Instead, psychologists and their clients may only contact each other through appropriate channels such as a dedicated work phone.
Boundary setting ensures that psychologists are focused only on the patient and their progress, rather than being distracted by other kinds of relationships that might otherwise develop. Psychologists also benefit from setting boundaries, as it can help to create a separation between work and home life. A psychologist's day can be emotionally taxing, so being able to step away from the heavy emotions of their work is important to maintain a work-life balance and protect their own wellbeing.
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