10 Essential Soft Skills

 

Preface

Having the technical skills and knowledge to successfully execute your job duties is only one part of being the best you can be in the workplace. In addition to these “hard” skills, we also need “soft” skills. Soft skills are those skills which allow us to effectively work with others. No matter what your position, organization, or industry, you work with people. Taking the time to build effective soft skills can contribute to a more efficient, more harmonious, and more productive workplace, as well as to your own overall job happiness and satisfaction.

I think we all have empathy.

We may not have the courage to display it.

Maya Angelou

 

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Chapter One: What are Soft Skills?

What are soft skills? Simply put, soft skills are the personal attributes that allows us to effectively relate to others. These skills enhance our personal interactions and lead to greater job performance and satisfaction. Unlike hard skills, which are the technical and knowledge skill set we bring to our work, soft skills are interpersonal and can be applied in a broad array of situations. Soft skills encompass both personality traits, such as optimism, and abilities which can be practiced, such as empathy. Like all skills, soft skills can be learned.

Definition of Soft Skills

Soft skills are personal attributes that allow us to effectively relate to others. Applying these skills helps us build stronger work relationships, work more productively, and maximize our career prospects. Often we place the focus of our career development efforts on hard skills – technology skills, knowledge, and other skills that specifically relate to our ability to get work-related tasks done. This means we neglect to develop our soft skills. However, soft skills are directly transferrable to any job, organization, or industry. As a result, they are an investment worth making.

Soft skills include:

  • Communication;
  • Listening;
  • Showing Empathy;
  • Networking;
  • Self-confidence;
  • Giving and receiving feedback.

Empathy and the Emotional Intelligence Quotient

Empathy is perhaps the most important soft skill we can develop for better interpersonal interactions. Empathy is the ability to identify with another person’s experience. While we often think of empathy in terms only of identifying with someone’s pain or negative experience, we can apply empathy in a variety of situations. Developing empathy allows us to imagine ourselves in another person’s shoes, to respond to others, and even to vicariously experience others’ feelings of emotions. When we demonstrate empathy, we create connections with others, which can help to build teamwork or otherwise create shared goals. Empathy also helps to forge stronger interpersonal connections between team members and colleagues, which is as important as shared goals or complementary skills when it comes to accomplishing work.

Empathy is one component of what is known as Emotional Intelligence, or EI. Emotional Intelligence is the ability to recognize and manage our feelings so that they are expressed appropriately. Exercising emotional intelligence helps to create harmonious, productive relationships. There are four key components to Emotional Intelligence:

  • Self-awareness: The ability to recognize our own feelings and motivations;
  • Self-management: The ability to appropriately express (or not express) feelings;
  • Social awareness: Our ability to recognize the feelings and needs of others, and the norms of a given situation;
  • Relationship management: Our ability to relate effectively to others.

Taken together, these skills make up our Emotional Intelligence Quotient (EQI). The EQI is a measure of your ability to exercise soft skills such as empathy.

 

Professionalism

The word “professionalism” often conjures up images of a cold, distant, brusque person in a nondescript navy blue suit. In fact, many people have the sense that to be “professional” is exactly the opposite of demonstrating empathy and emotional intelligence. However, professionalism is a key soft skill, and it doesn’t require you to be inauthentic, distant, or detached. Professionalism is simply the ability to conduct yourself with responsibility, integrity, accountability, and excellence. Acting with professionalism also means seeking to communicate effectively with others and finding a way to be productive. Professionalism involves what may seem to be small acts, such:

  • Always reporting to work on time and returning promptly from breaks;
  • Dressing appropriately;
  • Being clean and neat;
  • Speaking clearly and politely to colleagues, customers, and clients;
  • Striving to meet high standards for one’s own work.

Learned vs. Inborn Traits

Because soft skills are talked about as traits of a person’s personality, it may seem as though you have to born with them. While some soft skills come more easily to one person than they might to another, soft skills are not inborn. Like all skills, they can be learned. Because we all have our own preferences and ways of moving through the world, some soft skills may be more difficult to learn than others. But if we think back, there are also aspects of our hard skill set that were difficult at first, though they now seem to come quite naturally to us. We develop soft skills in the same way we develop hard skills – we practice. Spending time with people who seem to be able to effortlessly demonstrate a soft skill that you find challenging is one way to build your soft skill set. Another way is to seek opportunities to practice in which the risk of failure is low, until you feel confident in your ability. You don’t have to be born a networker or an empathetic person – you can learn and build these skills throughout your career.

Practical Illustration

Dee was just not a “people person.” She preferred to work by herself, and her position at her company allowed her to do that most of the time. She valued her productivity and her ability to meet deadlines and exceed expectations, and anything that got in the way of that was an annoyance. When she had to interact with co-workers throughout the day, she preferred to keep the interactions as brief as possible so she could get back to work. Her co-worker Angela mentioned that people often found Dee unapproachable. “I’m just not wired to be social,” Dee told her. “I don’t relate well to others when I feel like they’re wasting my time. I’ve always been a loner – it just comes naturally to me.” Angela explained that she also preferred to focus on her tasks and work independently, but she had learned to relate to her co-workers so that she could have a more harmonious work experience.

Angela encouraged Dee to try changing her approach to co-workers, to try to see them not as interruptions but as fellow humans who were worth paying attention to. Dee decided to try this, though it was hard for her. The next time a co-worker interrupted her while she worked, Dee tried to really listen to what he needed rather than rushing him out of her office. She realized that her co-workers often didn’t come to her until things were in crisis because they found her distant. She then realized that cultivating better relationships was a way to prevent crises in the workday.

The most important thing in communication
is hearing what isn’t said.

Peter Drucker

Chapter Two: Communication

Communication is the most important soft skill, because all other soft skills are built on the ability to communicate clearly and professionally. Communication is more than just sending a message – it is also the ability to receive messages, listen actively, and “hear” what isn’t being said. Many times we focus on learning to speak or write clearly, but this is only one component of communication – and perhaps not even the most important.

 

Ways We Communicate

Human communication is complex. The first thing that comes to mind when we hear the word “communication” is often words – either spoken or written. But the words we speak and hear are just one way we communicate, and some studies show that most of our communication takes place through other means.

Humans communicate in many different ways:

  • Nonverbal communication: Communication without words, such as eye contact or posture
  • Verbal communication: Communication with words, both written and spoken
  • Body language: Communication through gestures, personal space, and touching
  • Artistic communication: Communication through images and other creative media
  • Musical communication: Communication through music, whether with lyrics or without

Most of us have a preferred method of communication, but all of use these different forms at one point or another. Learning to communicate effectively in many forms not only helps when you craft your own messages, but when you receive messages as well.

 

Improving Nonverbal Communication

Studies show that up to 70% of the information we communicate comes through nonverbal communication – gestures, eye contact, posture, personal space, and all the other ways we use our bodies to send messages. Other studies show that if a person’s nonverbal communication and verbal communication don’t match in terms of message, the listener is more likely to doubt what he or she is saying. Improving your nonverbal communication can help improve your overall ability to both send and receive messages.

Improving your nonverbal communication starts with awareness. Pay attention to how you use your body when you are talking or listening to someone. An open stance, frequent (but not continuous eye contact), nods, and a relaxed posture help to communicate that you are open and approachable, and that you are communicating honestly. A closed stance, folding your arms across your chest, staring at the floor, or refusing to make eye contact all indicate that you are not listening, or that you are not communicating openly. Shifting from foot to foot, pacing, or otherwise moving continuously indicate impatience. We do many things without thinking about them, especially when we are otherwise busy. Take time to notice both your own nonverbal communication and others’, and especially your reaction to others.

 

Listening

The ability to receive messages is as important, if not more important, than the ability to send them. Listening is more than just hearing the words someone speaks. It is a total way of receiving verbal and nonverbal messages, processing them, and communicating that understanding back to the speaker. Many of us listen in order to respond – we are formulating our next message while another is still talking. We should instead listen to understand – to fully take in, process, and comprehend the message that is being sent.

“Active listening” is sometimes thrown around as a buzzword, but it’s a valuable soft skill to develop. Active listening is a form of listening where you listen to the speaker and reflect back what you understand the speaker to have said. You may also give the speaker nonverbal feedback through nods of agreement or other techniques which indicate you are listening and understanding. Active listening involves staying focused on the present, both by giving the speaker your full attention and by keeping the discussion to the issue at hand. Reflect back to the speaker what you understand him or her to have said by carefully rephrasing the message, such as, “So, I hear you saying that….” Check for understanding and use “I” statements rather than “you” statements.

 

Openness and Honesty

Open, honest communication is the key to building workplace relationships and demonstrating professionalism. While you do not need to discuss personal or private topics in the workplace, being transparent and honest about work matters and generally being willing to communicate with others is vital. People can sense when someone is hiding something or withholding information, and tend not to trust him or her. This damages workplace trust and relationships, and may lead to lower productivity and morale. Each of us has a different level of comfort with what we choose to disclose about ourselves, but being willing to share parts of yourself with your colleagues also helps to build rapport.

 

Practical Illustration

Austin wasn’t a big communicator. He liked to get right to the point so that an issue could be solved or a project moved forward. He especially didn’t like it if someone seemed to be taking too long to get to the point. He tended to listen with his arms folded across his chest, and sometimes even tapped his foot without realizing it. If a person came into his office while he was working, he’d continue working while the person talked. This meant sometimes he missed important details. During his yearly review, Austin’s manager told him that Austin’s co-workers and direct reports felt that he never really listened, and that they were bothering him even when they had to come to him with important things. Austin’s manager suggested he take a one-day communication course and try some of the techniques. Austin agreed, but only because he felt he had no choice. In the course, they talked about nonverbal communication, and Austin realized how off-putting his habits were. He decided to try to be more mindful of his nonverbal communication and listening style.

Talent wins games, but teamwork

and intelligence win championships.

Michael Jordan

Chapter Three: Teamwork

Chapter Four: Problem-Solving

Chapter Five: Time Management

Chapter Six: Attitude and Work Ethic

Chapter Seven: Adaptability

Chapter Eight: Self-Confidence

Chapter Nine: Ability to Learn

Chapter Ten: Networking