5 Ways to Develop Those Elusive “Soft Skills”

Your job requires a certain level of technical proficiencies and knowledge – “hard skills” that you’ve learned in school and on-the-job trainings. But how do you develop those harder to define “soft skills” like charisma, active listening, communication skills, time management, and optimism?

Soft skills complement your hard skills, and are just as crucial an occupational requirement. A manager with poor people skills will be faced with high turnover rates. An employee with poor negotiation skills will have trouble advancing her career and getting a raise. When a hiring decision or promotion comes down to two equally qualified candidates, the more adaptable, upbeat candidate will likely have an edge.

Organizations are looking for solid teams, not just employees who can check all the right technical skill boxes. Your technical skills and education may get you in the door, but it’s the soft skills that will get you ahead.

Aren’t you born that way?

It can seem as though some people are simply born with those intangible social graces that help them get ahead in the workplace. You can take a class to get better at Excel, but can you learn soft skills like creative problem solving and friendliness?

Of course you can. Just as someone who may not be a great writer can still study the rules of grammar and spelling in order to communicate clearly, someone who may feel socially awkward can practice soft skills in order to feel more comfortable.

Start by making a list of skills you lack. Ask trusted friends and coworkers to identify areas you could work on, and ask your manager to point out problems. Try to stay open to criticism here – if you hear from several people that you need to be more patient or more flexible, take it to heart.

Practice, practice, practice….

#1: Active listening. Active listening means not just hearing what someone else is saying – you need to be actually engaged. Empathize with the person you’re talking to, reflect on what he’s saying, and seek to actually understand him rather than simply offering advice or judgment. People can tell whether you’re engaged in the conversation, or simply waiting for your turn to speak.

To practice: Next time you have a conversation, focus on making eye contact and turning off your internal monologue. Don’t formulate your reply while the other person is talking – that distracts you from listening to what she’s actually saying. Rather, try paraphrasing what she’s told you and repeating it back, and then try to ask at least one open-ended question that encourages the speaker. Whether the conversation is about weekend plans or a work project, you’ll gain a deeper understanding. Aim to practice actively listening at least once a day, and soon it will become habit.

#2: Clear communication. This is the flip side of active listening. Whether you’re communicating with the public or with your coworkers, the ability to clearly explain yourself is crucial. This is personally a tough one for me – although I make my living as a writer, I have a hard time communicating verbally without the aid of writing a first draft. It’s incredibly frustrating to struggle to be understood, whether you’re bringing a new idea to a meeting, or trying to explain a policy to a new coworker.

To practice: Think of one conversation you had this week that’s typical of a difficult conversation you often have. How could you have made your point better? Grab a pen and paper if you like, and rework your explanation until it’s crystal clear. How is your revised explanation better than the original? Which details did you focus on? What did you leave aside? Next time you need to communicate with someone, keep what you learned in mind.

#3: Negotiation, persuasion and conflict resolution. These three things, although each slightly different, all deal with your ability to advance your ideas and agenda alongside those of another person. You need empathy and the ability to put your emotions aside in order to come up with a win-win situation, whether you’re asking for a raise or dealing with an interpersonal office conflict.

To practice: Role playing is a fantastic way to practice your negotiation and conflict resolution skills without picking actual fights with your coworkers. Think of a problem you have at work, and ask a friend or your partner to play through the scenario with you, acting as devil’s advocate. Pay attention to your emotional responses, and practice setting them aside in order to focus on the issue at hand without letting your fight or flight response get the best of you.

#4: Adaptability. It can be easy to get set in our ways, but in order to thrive in most organizations you need to be open to change. Continuing to learn and grow throughout your career not only makes you a better asset to the organization; it keeps you from getting into a rut and losing your passion. Be willing to adapt to curveballs at work: changing policies, shifting roles, and new technologies.

To practice: When you find yourself saying no to something automatically, take a moment to figure out why. Do you have a good reason, or are you simply rejecting it because you don’t want to change? Find a small way to push your own envelope this week – say yes to something that makes you uncomfortable, sign up for a class to learn a new technology, or simply change up your routine for the day.

#5: Teamwork and involvement. Employees that work well with their coworkers, are passionate about the organization’s mission, and knowledgeable about greater trends are an asset. It may be more comfortable simply to keep your head down and stick to your own projects, but teamwork and involvement are highly prized by most organizations these days. Show your interest by stepping outside your cubicle, and your efforts will be noticed.

To practice: Get involved with something new this week – sign up for a committee, volunteer for an office project, or offer to help a coworker with something small. The goal is to get you out of your element and connected into the greater organization. Staying informed with trends helps keep you involved, too. Pick one way to keep tabs on your industry, like getting involved here on GovLoop, or signing up for an industry newsletter.


MindTools.com has free training and evaluation tools to help you learn your strengths and weaknesses.

Although it’s aimed at youth, The Department of Labor has a useful curriculum aimed at developing soft skills with exercises anyone could find helpful. http://www.dol.gov/odep/topics/youth/softskills/

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