Some of Your Questions About Soft Skills and Work—Answered! (Part 1)

Some of Your Questions About Soft Skills and Work—Answered! (Part 1) was originally published on The Muse, a great place to research companies and careers. Click here to search for great jobs and companies near you.

For the month of December, as we ring in the holidays and look forward to a much needed break, I thought we would take things easy and talk about soft skills – what they are and how you can showcase them. To help me teach you about soft skills I will use the expertise of MUSE writer Regina Borsellino. This will be a two-part series article, so after you read, enjoy and share if you like, be sure to look for part two in the next couple of weeks. Let’s get started… You’re searching through a job board, scanning postings for positions that might be right for you, and in the requirements section you see: “strong communication skills” or “team player” or “skilled multitasker.” Do your eyes just jump over these? Or do you note them the same way you would qualifications such as “must have three years of experience as a Salesforce administrator” or “must be proficient in JavaScript?” You should be paying attention, because those notes tell you which soft skills are crucial to the role you’re applying for. And they’re often just as important as hard skills when it comes to your job search—and overall career success.

What Are Soft Skills?

“Soft skills are intangible attributes related to how you work,” says Muse career coach Jennifer Smith, founder of Flourish Careers. Soft skills are the traits and qualities you possess that dictate how you’ll engage with others—also known as interpersonal skills—and how you’ll perform in the workplace. For example, one big category of soft skills is communication skills, which help you to interact with your coworkers, clients, and anyone else you come across in your job. Strong communication skills will mean fewer misunderstandings, clearer indications of progress toward goals, and a more cohesive work environment, among other benefits. While hard skills are often based on specific knowledge, “soft skills focus more on your actual behaviors or habits in work situations,” says Muse career coach Al Dea. Are you always coming up with outside-the-box solutions and proposals? Can you give a presentation that makes everyone in the room sit up and pay attention? Do you always step in to help when someone on your team needs it? These are demonstrations of your soft skills—creativity, public speaking, and teamwork, respectively. Soft skills are also more subjective than hard skills. Saying that you know how to prepare someone’s taxes or upload content using WordPress is fairly straightforward: Did the taxes get filed correctly? Is the content uploaded? Then you have those skills. But saying that you’re a good leader isn’t as clear-cut. What is a good leader? That depends entirely on who’s answering the question and can be difficult to explain, show the results of, or learn if you’re not inherently skilled at it.

Why Are Soft Skills Important?

Think about your favorite and most admired coworkers, managers, and leaders. Why did you choose these people? Was it because they were great at doing data analysis? Maybe, but it’s unlikely that mastery of a hard skill is the only reason. It’s more likely you enjoyed interacting with this person and appreciated how they did their jobs. Was that one colleague always so excited to dive into a new project that they motivated others on the team? Did they always speak up at meetings to point out when someone else was being spoken over? Was that favorite boss always understanding of people’s lives outside of work? “The way you get work done and interact with others is a critical component within the workplace,” Smith says, so soft skills are crucial to your success and reputation, no matter what your role or seniority level. Now think about a company you were part of or a team you were on that really got things done in a way that felt rewarding. Why was that? Sure, the individuals on the team probably had the hard skills to complete their work tasks, but that’s just the “what.” The “how” comes from soft skills. Maybe innovation and creativity flourished. Maybe communication was very open and direct without ever being harsh. Maybe the environment was very collaborative and individuals were never blamed for failures. Maybe the team had a great rapport. Soft skills make these things possible. Soft skills are also more transferable and timeless than hard skills. “Many soft skills will continue to be needed for the foreseeable future even as the industry and market evolve,” Dea says. A lot of common tech tools, like those we use for social media or Search Engine Optimization, didn’t even exist until recently—and neither did the hard skills that go with them, Dea says. And technologies will continue to evolve, meaning that the hard skills you need now might not be as important in five or 10 years. Adobe Flash–based content used to be everywhere on the internet, for instance, but now it’s a rarity—and a sign of an outdated site—so knowing how to create it isn’t nearly as attractive a skill as it once was. But working hard and being dependable are unlikely to ever go out of style.

How Can You Improve Your Soft Skills?

Because they’re not based on specific knowledge like hard skills, soft skills are often considered more difficult to learn or strengthen. And there’s a bit of truth to that, but that doesn’t mean you can’t develop your soft skills. The first thing to do is establish where your soft skills stand now. Our experts suggest the following methods:

  • Look at past feedback from performance reviews and other sources and/or ask for current feedback: Are there any common themes, either positive or negative?
  • Take some time to look at your past and current work responsibilities and try to identify which soft skills have helped you succeed in your job and which ones would have helped that you could develop.
  • Take a skills assessment or quiz (like this, this, and this).

Identify one or two areas you want to focus on first. Then, just like anything else, soft skills can be improved through practice. Smith recommends putting yourself in situations where you’ll have to stretch your soft skills, but start small. For example, do you struggle with public speaking? Maybe you can give a short presentation to your immediate team at an upcoming meeting, or for a class assignment. Are your leadership skills lacking? Volunteer to take point on a simple project. And whenever possible during your practice, ask for feedback. You might also consider taking a class. While they’re less common than classes on how to use a flashy new program, you can still find courses online that will help you with your interpersonal and other skills. Also, take a look at our past Career Academy workshops to learn more about various aspects of your career here. And don’t forget that you can turn to people in your network, too. “Find a mentor who is good at what you’re trying to improve and ask them to coach you,” Smith suggests. Or, if you have a coworker who’s great at the soft skill you’re trying to work on, you might observe and evaluate what they do and think about how you can apply these strategies yourself, Dea says.

In the next blog to come, there will be more of your questions about soft skills answered including some examples of what they are, and how to highlight them on your resume. Don’t miss Part 2!!  *Modifications by Joi Sampson to personalize for Mercy College Students
By Regina Borsellino - The Muse
The Muse
Expert advice to answer your career questions.