Here’s how you can improve your soft skills
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Do you find soft skills mystifying? Here’s how to improve them

17 Oct 2017

With employers emphasising team-oriented work environments more than ever, soft skills have become essential.

There is a paradigm shift underway within the world of recruitment. Increasingly, employers are placing greater emphasis on ‘soft skills’ such as communication and leadership in job advertisements.

While technical skills or ‘hard skills’ – skills that can be quantified and learned through formal education or training – are still important, they must be complemented by soft skills. Even if you are proficient in technology and have good ideas, those around you won’t be aware of this if you do not possess the skills to communicate these traits in the workplace.

According to Deloitte’s 2017 Global Human Capital Trends report, which interviewed more than 10,400 business and HR leaders across 140 countries, building the ‘organisation of the future’ is the most pressing issue for executives.

This organisation of the future is largely defined by moving away from distinct hierarchies and placing greater emphasis on working in teams, which necessitates that all employees have strong soft skills.

Of course, one of the issues with soft skills is that they are difficult to define. It can be easy to erroneously assume that you either have them or you don’t, and therefore feel as though little can be done if said soft skills are not your forte.

Here are a few of the most important soft skills, and how you can develop them.

Being a better communicator

Of all the soft skills, communication is both the most important and the most difficult to define. Being able to communicate effectively with people is essential to navigating the collaborative, team-oriented environments that employers are trying to foster.

Good communication constantly evolves to best suit the situation as well as the person with whom you are dealing. It is difficult to establish rules that are general across all conversations.

If speaking is something you genuinely struggle with, enrolling in a public-speaking class can be helpful. This can also help to ease nerves surrounding things such as presentations and client meetings.

Getting down to basics

Good communication is about getting salient points across clearly and succinctly.

One excellent way to develop this is to practise explaining aspects of your job as if you are talking to a five-year-old. You have to abandon jargon and vague platitudes when talking to children. It also forces you to consider how you would explain a concept to someone who has no background knowledge of the subject.

When these assumptions are stripped away, it is much easier to express oneself concisely and clearly, eliminating some of the more major barriers to being understood; not to mention it will also provide insight into whether there are gaps in your own knowledge that you may need to fill.

Writing well

Writing effectively, especially in emails, is an important facet of good communication. For those to whom writing doesn’t come naturally, understanding what constitutes good writing can seem nebulous at best.

Channelling the aforementioned back-to-basics approach will engender clearer communication across all mediums, of course. In written word, however, things such as grammar and spelling come into play.

While it can be difficult to articulate why someone’s writing flows well and looks especially impressive, mistakes are glaringly obvious and can be ruinous when committed in the early stages of forging a professional relationship, such as on a CV.

There are a myriad of resources online to brush up on the finer aspects of grammar, such as Comma Queen from The New Yorker. Reading up on these rules and applying them consistently will allow you to write more fluently, newly confident that you know the difference between a semicolon and an en dash.

Spelling can be a little trickier, as it is easy to miss typos even if you repeatedly read over something you’ve written. The words are too fresh in your mind for you to be able to distinguish whether what you’re reading is what you intended to write, or what you actually wrote. Autocorrect can lull one into a false sense of security on this front.

One good way to circumvent this is to read emails backwards before sending – this will decontextualise each individual word and help you get around this familiarity-based blindness.

Knowing me, knowing you

Many soft skills can all be put under the wider rubric of skills, aiding cohesiveness and helping you better relate to your peers.

It is important, therefore, to develop the ability to better sympathise and empathise with people. If you are able to understand the other person’s perspective, you’ll be better able to speak to their needs.

Research conducted by The New School in New York found that reading literary fiction increases empathy. Reading about how characters relate to each other, figuring out a character’s motivations and being able to understand how someone’s background or personality can influence their behaviour in a text is an excellent way to practise understanding those around you.

That said, improving interpersonal skills is not just about developing an understanding of those around you. It is equally important to develop self-awareness, so as to understand what you bring to the team and where you could improve.

This can be achieved by doing a kind of personal inventory in which you assess your strengths and weaknesses. In the case of the latter, it is of particular importance to be objective and not to hesitate. Not allowing yourself to admit fault will not only mean your learning will stagnate, it will also prevent you from being receptive to feedback, which will in turn leave anyone who offers advice feel they have not been listened to.

Learn to listen before you get burned

Often in conversation, people don’t actually listen to one another. While one person speaks, the other person thinks about what they are going to say next.

While it’s important to consider one’s words carefully in a working environment, listening to one another is essential to the smooth operation of teams.

Be more present when you are interacting with co-workers. Put down phones, laptops and other devices that may divert attention. Face whomever you’re speaking to and give nonverbal cues, such as nodding along while they speak, to ensure that they feel listened to. Repeating key phrases back to them can also be effective when done in moderation.

Instead of using the time in which someone is speaking to formulate your response, wait until you are sure the person has finished and take a small pause to consider their words before responding.

This pause can be particular helpful in situations in which you are being critiqued. Taking a breath can help you resist the natural urge to be defensive when someone is pointing out an error you have made.

If you find it helpful, taking down notes with pen and paper can also aid in memory retention. If the conversation ended with something that needs to be followed up with at a later point, set a reminder on your calendar.

Skills like any other

One of the best ways to improve your soft skills is to remind yourself that they are nothing to fear.

They are skills like any other and, rest assured, they can be learned. It’s not some impossible feat, and reminding yourself of that will instantly make the whole process easier.

It’s also important to be patient with yourself. Developing soft skills will take practice and time. Keep this in mind when assessing the pace at which you are learning.

Overall, enjoy the process of developing this new kind of awareness and enjoy the benefits of becoming more adept at soft skills.

Eva Short
By Eva Short

Eva Short was a journalist at Silicon Republic, specialising in the areas of tech, data privacy, business, cybersecurity, AI, automation and future of work, among others.

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