Beyond Textbooks: Developing Essential Soft Skills in Medical School

Becoming a doctor requires substantial education. The knowledge you need to observe, test, diagnose, and treat each person is never-ending. Most of these skills are taught in school, through studies, and by experience. 

However, some of the most vital characteristics of the best physicians aren’t learned from a textbook. These are the soft skills that differentiate you from other healthcare professionals and make your patients appreciate and stay loyal to you.

While technical and hard skills focus on your IQ, soft skills enter another territory that can be just as challenging: your EQ. EQ is defined as the “ability to manage your own emotions and understand the emotions of those around you.” In today’s mental health-aware world, where disorders like anxiety and depression are skyrocketing, this is an essential trait.

How can you develop these soft skills in med school before you start treating patients independently? Here are some of the top tips from experts in the medical field to get you started.

1. Dig Into EQ

Your emotional quotient (EQ) is your ability to control your emotions and use them to communicate with others. You’ll see the importance of this as you watch politicians attempt to convince people to listen to them, teachers try to connect with their students, and doctors — like you — interact with their patients and healthcare teams.

Without EQ, it’s easy to come across as aloof, arrogant, or downright rude. And, as you’ve likely experienced yourself when dealing with those like that, people are less likely to listen to or respect those types of individuals.

Digging into EQ requires focusing on four main components:

  1. Self-management and how you control and manage your feelings and behaviors,
  2. Self-awareness and how you recognize the power of your emotions over your thoughts and behaviors and use your strengths and weaknesses accordingly.
  3. Social awareness and your empathy towards others’ emotions, needs, and concerns.
  4. Relationship management and how you use your EQ to develop and sustain strong relationships.

Building these four attributes will help you in your career as you network, work with your team, and strive to reach your goals.

2. Find a Mentor

Mentors are an integral part of medical school, but be cautious when choosing someone to be yours. You may admire one of your professors or a doctor you work with because of their knowledge in the industry. But before you request them as your mentor, watch how they interact with others, and listen to how people talk about that individual when they’re not around.

Does this potential mentor have leadership skills? Does their behavior show the character traits that you wish to have? Do their interactions inspire loyalty and willing respect? Do they treat their patients as humans, with empathy and care?

You can always learn medical knowledge with enough studying and experience, and there are companies like Physicians Thrive to teach you about things like the importance of disability insurance.

However, EQ is picked up by watching how others interact and behave and observing what works and what doesn’t. You will, in varying degrees, become a product of your mentor. Choose well.

3. Practice on Your Peers

While you’re working on your soft skills, consider forming a study group with other like-minded peers. Although you’re working with feelings and emotions, look at the group as a research project with yourselves as the test subjects.

You aren’t the only one who wants to be the best doctor possible by learning soft and hard traits. As you’re observing your fellow students, look for those who have interpersonal skills that you admire. Ask them if they’d be willing to work with you as you become more comfortable communicating with others. 

Chances are, they have areas they feel unconfident in, and getting neutral feedback from others in the group can benefit everyone. As long as you all set the ground rules early, encouraging honesty and discouraging hostility when that honesty is given, the experiment should help you all grow.

4. Work on Yourself

Doctors know the importance of physical healing for a person’s recovery. Yet, there’s a strong correlation between mental and physical health that is often overlooked. Decades of research show there is power in positive thinking, and that is a soft skill you must work on every day.

Working on yourself, why you think the way you do, how you interact with others, and how your emotions control your behaviors will give you an insight into your patients that many doctors miss. 

For example, you don’t have to be a mental health therapist to recognize how a person’s feelings of loneliness and unworthiness contribute to their obesity and diabetes. But when you’ve addressed your personal demons, you’re more likely to realize that no amount of patient medication is going to fix their medical issues if they don’t work on the underlying emotional damage.

Working on yourself gives you more empathy and introduces you to strategies you can share with your patients.


The outside world stereotypes physicians as people with substantial book knowledge. Yet, when you’re a patient facing a diagnosis of bad news, you realize how important it is to have a doctor with soft skills. To be the best healthcare provider you can be, you’ll need to look outside the textbook and inside yourself, adding EQ to your IQ.