So What Are These Things Called “Soft Skills”?

Possessing the technical skills required to execute job duties is only one part of being our best self in the workplace. Effective soft skills must also be deployed to generate more efficient production as well as greater overall job satisfaction.

Many websites and books address “soft skills”. However, I like best the following straightforward, concise definition:

Soft Skills” is a catch-all term referring to various behaviors that help people work and socialize well with others. In short, they are the good manners and personality traits needed to get along with others and build positive relationships. Unlike hard skills, which include a person’s technical skill set and ability to perform certain functional tasks, soft skills are broadly applicable across job titles and industries. It’s often said that hard skills will get you an interview, but you need soft skills to get – and keep – the job.

No matter what our position, organization, or industry, we work with people. So soft skills are just as important as any hard skill. They encompass both innate personality traits, such as optimism, and abilities that can be practiced, such as empathy. And like all skills, soft skills can be learned.

Because we all have our own preferences and ways of moving through the world, the ability to absorb and master a variety of soft skills varies from person to person. What comes easily to some may be more difficult for others. In the same way, aspects of our hard skill set were difficult at first, and they now come quite naturally to us.

For example, think back to when you first learned to drive. Do you remember how it felt the first few times you took the wheel? I certainly do. I remember how difficult it was to use just the right amount of pressure on the accelerator, turning the steering wheel at the same time, while also checking the rear and side view mirrors. But before long, those actions become natural, almost like breathing. Now we don’t think twice about all the “over the shoulder” or side view mirror checks. Even fastening the seat belt is automatic.

The Most Important Soft Skill

I believe communication is the most important soft skill. Communication, in this context, is not just about sending a message, but about receiving messages – the ability to actively listen and fully understand what is being communicated. Communication is the most important soft skill because everything flows from it – listening, showing empathy, networking, self-confidence, giving and receiving feedback, even time and organizational management.

Human communication is complex. The first thing that comes to mind when we hear the word “communication” is often just the actual words, either spoken or written. But the words we speak and hear are just a small part. Most of us have heard of the 7, 38, and 55 rule that states that 55% of all communication comes from body language, 38% from the tone or intonation, and only 7% from the words.

Making assumptions about what another person is saying, or the meaning behind the words they are using, can be a disaster. One of the “habits” Stephen Covey describes in his book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People says, “seek first to understand, then to be understood”. He describes it as “the key to effective communication”. If we want to have any sort of effective communication among ourselves, we first must understand each other. And the simplest way of understanding each other is by asking questions. Another way is by observing the other person. Sounds very simplistic, doesn’t it? It’s true, and better yet, we can get better at it.

No matter what our position, organization, or industry, we all work with people. So soft skills are just as important as any hard skill. And like all skills, soft skills can be learned.


The Two-Way Street

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 formulate our next message while the other is still talking. Instead, we should listen to understand, to fully take in, process, and comprehend the message being sent.

We communicate from our own perspective, the reality in which we live, our understanding of our own world. So ask questions to clarify the speaker’s meaning. Reframe what they have said to see if there’s agreement on their intended message. By taking this approach, we learn to seek their perspective and reality rather than defaulting to our own.

It’s often said hard skills will get you an interview, but you need soft skills to get – and keep – the job.

We need to be aware of our own emotional stance. If we are having trouble understanding the message or having trouble getting our message across, look for common perspective. It may be difficult, but we need to keep our composure. Negative comments are not necessarily personal but more likely borne out of frustration with the situation.

Effective communication is a two-way street, involving both senders and receivers. It is about the senders making their intention clear, and the receivers being present and, in the moment, actively listening. Understanding the difference between words and meaning is a vital capability for effective communications and relationships.

For example, as 19th century English art critic and social commentator John Ruskin stated, “The essence of lying is in deception, not in words.” I learned long ago when starting a difficult conversation, it was critical to state my intent, and more importantly, what it was not. This communication allows the other person to listen to what I am saying and to understand the message behind the words.

Finally, we can’t make another person actively listen to us, but we can increase the odds they will by understanding the other person’s communication style. Does she only need quick, basic information with few details? Or does she need a lot of detail, maybe even to make a list? Does he appreciate it when we infuse our message with emotion? Or does he prefer no emotional attachment to the message at all? By recognizing these basic preferences, we can change how we communicate with others, giving them what they need to understand and process our message.

Practice Makes Perfect

We develop soft skills such as communication in the same way we develop hard skills – with practice. One way to practice is to seek out people who seem able to demonstrate effortlessly those skills we find challenging. Another way is to seek opportunities to practice in which the risk of failure is low.

We don’t have to be born a networker or an empathetic person. We can learn and develop these skills throughout our careers. Hiring a coach is a great way to grow and develop soft skills. A skilled coach can ask penetrating, challenging questions to provoke deep thoughts about soft skills and assist in working to strengthen them.


Register for the 6th Annual Sports Sales Training Forum, where John will present his workshop entitled “Open Mouth – Remove Foot!”