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.

What are soft skills, anyway? Simply put, soft skills are the personal attributes that allow 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.

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 transferable 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 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 appropriate 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.

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

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.

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!

by Christine R. Spray
Founder & President of Strategic Catalyst, Inc. and the National Business Development Association