What Are Soft Skills?

From empathy to curiosity, here’s how to learn and practice nontechnical abilities.

Written by Brian Nordli
What Are Soft Skills?
Image: Shutterstock
UPDATED BY
Matthew Urwin | May 23, 2023
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Soft skills refer to the interpersonal and critical-thinking abilities people rely on at work. It’s the ability to communicate coherent ideas, compromise with colleagues and brainstorm creative solutions to difficult problems. 

Soft skills stand in contrast to hard skills, which involve the technical know-how you need to do your job. These include being able to code in Javascript, work in Excel, create an advertising campaign and so on.

What Are Soft Skills?

Soft skills are the non-technical abilities you rely on at work to relate to other people and situations. They include the ability to communicate clearly, collaborate with teammates and come up with creative solutions for complex problems.

Both hard and soft skills are essential to a successful career, whether you spend most of your time writing code or talking with customers. 

“Skills are skills. Period,” Matt Monnot, an industrial organizational psychologist, told Built In. “We can select based on them, we can train you on them and we can get you better at them. In fact, what has conventionally been called soft skills are actually what are most predictive of leadership effectiveness.”

More on Career DevelopmentInformational Interviews: The Secret to Career Advancement

 

Soft Skills Examples

One of the problems with soft skills is that it’s tough to know what skills actually fall under this category. While communication and teamwork are two common choices, you’ll want to cultivate a range of soft skills to become a more productive and effective employee.

11 In-Demand Soft Skills to Develop

  • Communication
  • Teamwork
  • Empathy
  • Negotiation
  • Body language
  • Mindfulness
  • Creativity
  • Adaptability
  • Resilience
  • Attention to detail
  • Curiosity

 

Communication

People often mistake giving orders for effective communication, according to Renissa Readus, who runs the organizational training consulting firm LPE Institute. Readus defines communication as a two-way street. It’s the ability to both share information in a clear and concise way and to listen to what the other person is saying. Failing to listen is often where lines get crossed and people end up in preventable disagreements. 

“You can have the best work ethic, but if you don’t know how to effectively communicate, that affects you as a person, affects how you produce work that affects your production,” Readus said.

 

Teamwork

When teamwork comes up, people inevitably draw parallels to athletics, Readus said. In sports, everyone has an assigned role and their job is to play that role. For example, the quarterback doesn’t fill in on the offensive line when there’s an injury.

But in the context of work, teamwork means connecting with your colleagues and taking on tasks outside of your typical responsibilities because that’s what needs to get done. It’s about setting aside your defined role, say, as a junior engineer, to help a member of the quality assurance team run a test to push the project across the finish line. It’s a skill that requires understanding the scope of the project, when to offer help and when to ask for help.

 

Empathy

Empathy is all about being able to put yourself in another person’s shoes and acknowledge their experience. It’s not easy. You have to be willing to set aside your ego, drop all assumptions and seek to understand the person’s perspective — even when you disagree. 

Developing this skill as a manager helps you resolve conflicts, connect with your employees and get the most out of them. As an individual contributor, you can’t build a great product if you don’t know what the other stakeholders want out of it. If you refuse to see other perspectives, you will end up rubbing people the wrong way.      

 

Negotiation

Negotiation is the ability to work with another party to come to a joint agreement. This skill can come in handy when talking about a course of action for a project, working with a customer on developing a feature or interviewing for a job, said Yadi Caro, host of the Hardcore Soft Skills podcast. To negotiate well, research the topic, understand what the other party wants and know when it’s best to walk away and pursue your best alternative to a negotiated agreement.

 

Body Language

About 90 percent of communication is nonverbal, making body language a crucial soft skill to possess. Body language is all about controlling how you communicate through your posture, gestures and facial expressions and how you observe other people’s body language. During a meeting, controlling your facial expressions and posture along with reading the room can go a long way toward clearing up miscommunication. 

 

Mindfulness

Mindfulness is the ability to be present in whatever activity you’re doing. It can be a challenge with the constant pinging of Slack messages and other notifications all vying for your attention, but mindfulness is key to being more productive and focused on the task at hand, Caro said. It’s an overlooked skill that comes up frequently when she interviews psychologists, authors and motivational leaders about soft skills for her podcast. 

 

Creativity

Creativity often gets overlooked as either a personality trait or something unique to artists and writers, but it’s essential for getting work done. Creativity involves thinking outside the box, being open to new ideas and then whittling them down to the most realistic options.     

 

Adaptability

Adaptability means being able to pivot what you’re doing on a moment’s notice. When your manager has a special project or an idea reaches a dead end, you have to be willing to go with the flow and adjust to that new situation, said Ankit Sharma, head of talent for Search.io, which provides an AI-powered internal search browser for company websites. 

Learning how to embrace change can make you a more flexible team member. Being able to pitch in on a customer call, assist a teammate to push a project across the finish line and juggle your usual responsibilities only serves to make you a more valuable employee.   

 

Resilience

No matter what job you do, you’re bound to encounter obstacles. Maybe code you’ve written isn’t performing the way you expected it to or you’re met with a string of rejections in sales. Resilience is the ability to push through those challenges and come up with creative solutions.   

 

Attention to Detail

Attention to detail refers to having a complete understanding of your task and making sure you don’t miss anything important. You don’t have to analyze a task down to its last semicolon, but you do need to identify the important bits of information and understand how a task fits into the larger picture of a project. Often this requires shifting the focus from what you think is best for a project and instead focusing on what the customer or company needs. 

 

Curiosity

Curiosity involves seeking out and being receptive to new information. It’s acknowledging what you don’t know and then asking questions to learn more. Curiosity helps you keep improving in your job and makes you easier to manage. It also translates into leadership, where being willing to ask your employees questions and seek new ways of approaching a task allows you to get the most out of them.

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Leadership coach Scott Asai expounds on the importance of soft skills during a TEDx Talk in Hawaii. | Video: TEDx Talks

Why Do Soft Skills Matter?

While hard skills hog most of the spotlight in job interviews and in work evaluations, soft skills are what help you land a job and get promoted.

 

Strong Communication Skills Lead to Better Job Performance 

Talented engineers get overlooked all the time because they can’t communicate their vision or ideas for a project. Charismatic sales representatives lose out on deals because they aren’t effective listeners. Data scientists miss critical information because they took too rigid an approach analyzing data.

“You could be the smartest person in the room, but you don’t get prioritized if you’re not able to communicate,” said Vivian Shen, founder of educational platform Juni Learning. 

 

Professionals Must Be Able to Work Within and Across Teams 

Thanks to the rise in automation software, which has taken over more technical tasks, companies increasingly value soft skills over hard skills, according to a National Bureau of Economic Research report. Job descriptions have moved away from rigid categorization and require more cross-collaboration. As a result, workers today need to be able to solve complex problems in team-based settings.

“Social interaction is perhaps the most necessary workplace task for which there is currently no good machine substitute,” wrote the report’s author, David Deming, a Harvard University research associate.

 

Soft Skills Make Employees More Versatile and Valuable  

At consumer-to-consumer marketing tech startup Statusphere, CTO Cassandra Wilcox has noticed a shift in the way engineers are hired from earlier in her career. Most of the focus used to be on hiring savant coders who could plug headphones in and write code all day. But she’s found that it’s more important to hire someone who excels in soft skills. 

Someone who can speak with users, lead a project when a manager is out and communicate the technical vision to other teams in the company is more valuable than someone who can write flawless code.     

“We’re trying to build cross-functional product teams where the recommendation is everyone on the team is developed in the ability to be a product lead,” Wilcox said. “We’re not just going to hire an army of engineers, we’re going to look for people who have these [soft skills] so we can build a team of creatively effective people.”

 

Soft Skills Are Crucial for Managerial Roles 

Emotional intelligence is a must-have for managers. In fact, employees are four times less likely to leave their jobs if they work for emotionally intelligent managers. As a soft skills trainer, Scott Asai has seen countless high-performing individual contributors fail when they make the leap to manager because they lacked the nontechnical skills needed to manage people.  

“The skills that got you promoted aren’t necessarily the skills that help you as a manager,” Asai said. “So I like to emphasize things like communication, leadership and emotional intelligence because those are the things that really help you succeed at a middle management or higher management level.” 

 

Even Remote Work Requires Soft Skills

Even as companies transition to remote work with less personal interaction, soft skills are still important to develop. A poorly written Slack message can lead to an argument. The inability to read facial expressions during video meetings can mean you miss out on important cues during a presentation. Effective employees today need to not only be good communicators, they need to be able to communicate asynchronously, which can be more challenging.

“In an office, you have to have the skill of having a positive appearance, good body language and being there on time. Being remote … what’s most important is that you can use asynchronous tools effectively,” Wilcox said. “It’s maybe even a more sophisticated set of communication skills to learn.” 

Still, people often take soft skills for granted, Readus said. But ignoring these skills — even when you spend most of your time on a computer — will only set you back in your career.

“If you don’t have the ability to listen and the ability to effectively communicate something to an internal customer like your colleagues, then you need [soft skills] training,” Readus said. “No job is 100 percent solo.”

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How to Develop Your Soft Skills 

10 Ways to Improve Your Soft Skills

  • Self-reflect to determine soft skills you want to focus on refining.
  • Ask peers for feedback on what you can improve.
  • Track your progress daily to ensure you follow new habits.  
  • Seek out books, videos and other resources for learning soft skills.
  • Practice journaling, meditation or another activity to engage your critical thinking. 
  • Set daily reminders to reach out to teammates and ask if you can help with anything.    
  • Emphasize asking more questions and listening during conversations with peers.
  • Develop new hobbies to nourish soft skills like creativity. 
  • Take writing classes to sharpen your written communication skills. 
  • Take on leadership roles for clubs, events and other activities.

First, identify your soft skill strengths and weaknesses.

You can evaluate your soft skills by taking a test like the Big Five personality test, the Hogan Assessment or the NEO Personality Inventory-Revised. These tests help you see how you present yourself to other people, Monnot said.

It’s also important to collect feedback from other people. Asai suggests reaching out to peers, mentors and managers and asking them what skills you need to work on. If multiple people say you could be a better listener or that you come off as disorganized, those are great places to start improving. 

Working on soft skills is different from developing a hard skill in that it takes daily self-reflection and constant practice for long periods of time. People often overestimate the work that goes into building those relational abilities. 

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Once you’ve identified soft skills you want to develop, watch videos or read books that focus on that skill. From there, it’s a matter of approaching each interaction with the goal of practicing that skill.

If you want to be a better listener, engage in a conversation with a peer and focus on asking more questions next time you reach a disagreement. Or, to improve your teamwork, set a calendar alert to ask your colleagues if they need help on a project.  

You can also work on them through outside hobbies, Shen said. If you want to improve your creativity, you can practice a new skill like painting to get your brain thinking in different ways. Or, if you struggle with seeing eye to eye with your manager as a software engineer, attend a hackathon and work as the project manager to experience the challenges your manager deals with every day.

Just remember, there is no mastering a soft skill. It’s something that requires constant feedback and practice. 

“Research and understanding is big,” Shen said. “Then find ways to apply them in your daily life so you can see if it impacts you positively or negatively. … Then, finally asking for feedback. When you have applied these skills, did people notice? It’s a constant loop.”  

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