Soft skills: everybody wants them but no-one really knows what they are!

Lady listening
SIphotography /iStock
Emma Sue Prince
Director
Unimenta
Columnist
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Emma Sue Prince is the founder of Unimenta, who are running a FREE webinar this Friday on the topic "Soft Skills: what are they and why do we need them?" This webinar emphasises that soft skills can only be built from the inside and that developing and practising a set of competences that we all possess will give us an array of soft skills at our fingertips. Register here.

Studies abound on how soft skills are what every employer is seeking in graduates entering the workplace today. And 80% of how effective we are in business and at work might well be down to our soft skills. But what are they?

Most people, when asked this question, might have an array of responses around what these skills are - from being a good team player, a great leader and effective communicator. From being able to network well and present confidently to having charisma, poise and even elegance.

There is no standard definition around what these skills are nor on how we get them. What we do know is that behavior is very important for success in the workplace and possibly of more importance than either knowledge or skills (these are threshold competences).

I believe that soft skills can only be built from the inside and that developing and practising a set of competences that we all possess we will have an array of soft skills at our fingertips. This is about working from a base of self-awareness and continually learning and developing from there. 

For me it boils down to seven key skills that we each need and they are the only skills you will ever need to succeed. Everything – from being that great team player or leader to giving persuasive presentations and compelling pitches – stem from these seven. Possessing them relies on practice – if you practise when the stakes are low you’ll get better at tapping into these when the stakes are high. Here we go:

Adaptability

Right now we need to get much better at being flexible, adaptable and agile so that we can deal well with challenges and grab new opportunities. Change is with us and it’s constant. We each have within us the ability to adapt – in fact we are hard-wired to do so. However, when it comes down to it we resist change and moving out of our comfort zone. Therefore, in order to build your innate ability to adapt you need to regularly:

  • Open your mind – this allows fresh ideas and thinking to come in – answers and solutions will come much more quickly. Develop that open mind by challenging any limiting beliefs and assumptions and becoming more aware of your mental scripts and the stories you may tell yourself.
  • Improvise – be aware when you overthink or second-guess everything you do. Practise being more spontaneous, grab opportunities and say “yes”
  • Get out of your comfort zone – keep looking for opportunities to try new things that will keep you learning – start with small things like trying out new food or learning a new skill and to build to new challenges at work and getting better at embracing change

Critical thinking

Real critical thinking is raw material for success! So to challenge assumptions we naturally make we need to get better at thinking about things from different angles, collaborate more with other people and be solutions-focused. You will never have all the information you need to solve a problem despite the fact that we have an abundance of information at our fingertips. Get yourself thinking more critically by:

  • Becoming more forensic – about anything you are presented with! Ask lots of questions and always try to work out where assumptions are being made.
  • Building in reflection time – we tend to bypass this in our frenzied, rushed way of getting through our to-do lists. If you can learn to make reflection and thinking a priority in any decision-making process you will experience and immediate impact.
  • Stop pigeon-holing – we make automatic judgements of others based on quite loose “facts”. Train yourself to stop doing this, even if you only do it in jest. What comes out of your mouth gets remembered, not just by others but also by your brain. Pretty soon you’ll start believing your own judgements yourself, without testing their reliability.

Empathy

This is the ability and capacity to really understand what someone else is experiencing. Without it we will never have super-strong listening skills or the ability to respect others and really value your relationships. Everything we do now is more visible than ever and managing and nurturing all our relationships is a key skill and competence. We are hard-wired to be empathetic too. Here’s three ways to develop and practise empathy:

  • Start listening – this is something we are all very bad at! So practise listening without interrupting or judging or stepping in with your immediate response. Just try simple things like waiting until the other person has fully expressed their point of view before offering your own – this is harder than you might think! Note the result or impact this has because it’s fairly immediate.
  • Slow down – build in mindfulness to your day and uni-task as much as you can. If you are constantly rushing from one stimulus to the next you are less likely to be empathetic. If nothing else, just try being silent and still for a short time and breathe deeply. This can be done while waiting for a train instead of automatically reaching for your smartphone.
  • Read faces – The first few seconds of a facial expression give vital clues as to what is really going on. Really pay attention to facial expressions and body language next time you are in a meeting or discussion. How sensitive are you to non-verbal cues? Look at someone’s face for that first initial response, which is very hard to disguise.

Integrity

As the speed of life has accelerated, so has the number of people who are neglecting to do the things that are expected of them, such as being on time for appointments, returning calls or completing projects on time. These may seem like small things but they are not – trust, values, principles and honesty are the name of the game now, as is authenticity. You must behave in ways that are in line with your values. Throughout periods of intense change, be consistent – a harbour in the storm. Can integrity be developed? I believe it can – try these:

  • Start with your values – these will be unique things that are important to you – could be anything from “being results-focused” to “creativity”. If you are not sure where to start reflect on what makes you happy, what gives you energy or makes you angry/sad and try to identify the value behind that. There are plenty of online tools to help you identify your values. Once you’ve done that then the next step is to clarify how these are manifest in your life (or not).
  • Be accountable – if you are taking on a project be 100% responsible for the outcome. Keep promises and do the things you said you would do. Make commitments and stick to them. Demonstrate ownership and accountability.
  • Tell the truth – In the Jim Carrey movie Liar Liar the lead character is constantly letting down his young son. On his birthday the son makes a wish for his father to be unable to tell a lie for a whole day. The character Jim Carrey plays is unable to lie, mislead or even withhold a true answer. For a day, why not see how much you tell the truth – white lies don’t count, or do they?

Optimism

Get used to being disappointed and rejected! We need to know how to develop and keep a positive attitude, no matter what is thrown at us! This is also about generating and radiating good will and positive energy to maintain a competitive edge. In the absence of certainty you need to be the most positive person you know. Can you develop optimism? Positive psychology says that you can:

  • Easy as ABC…. – Try this approach for dealing with a problem or event. Record how you interpret something and what impact this has. This will build your awareness that it is never the external event or problem or person that makes you feel a certain way, it is only every your interpretation of it.
  • What’s your explanatory style? – Monitor how you respond to events in your everyday life. What is your default response if something does not go according to plan or you get some unexpected news? Take some time to understand yourself. After all, you’re the only one who can!
  • Be a radiator – If you can radiate energy around you, everyone will pick up on it. If you’re a drain, they’ll pick up on that even more. Be aware of the high negative impact of being perceived as a drain. If you’re having a bad day, try, before you enter the office, to centre yourself, ground yourself and take control. It takes effort but you don’t have to project your mood on those around you or feel you need to ‘make a statement’ about how you are feeling.

Being proactive

This means thinking and acting ahead and using foresight. It’s also about being able to respond appropriately to situations rather than reacting. These days we all need to be self-starting whether employed or running our own business. Here’s how to build this up:

  • Watch your language – for a full day, or as long as you can, heighten your awareness both to your own language and the language of people around you. How often do you hear reactive phrases such as “There’s nothing I can do”, “I had not choice”, “I have to do xyz”. Try re-scripting these to “I have lots of different options” or “I choose to”, or “I can try a different approach and see what happens”.
  • Eat the elephant, one bite at a time – if you find yourself procrastinating or putting something off, break it down into manageable chunks and celebrate incremental progress. Writing a report? Can you get the headings and the structure done? Can you work on this task for 15 minutes? Often you can keep going once you have started.
  • Take stock – think about what is happening at the moment at home or at work. Are things how you want them to be? What are some areas where you can initiate changes. Don’t wait for things to change – scan for opportunities as much as you can and grab them.

Resilience

If we are resilient and can bounce back easily you can handle pretty much anything. In fact, optimism, being proactive and resilience are all interconnected in that if you are building and practising one you will be supporting the other two:

  • Ask for help – resilient people have a strong support network so take responsibility for finding the right support to solve a problem. Surround yourself with people whose character and opinion you respect and trust.
  • Celebrate failure – You are always going to miss 100% of the opportunities you don’t take so you might as well take them. Failure can be a launch pad for change and builds stronger self-awareness. Take on the lesson learned and do it differently next time.
  • Take more risks – in a world that is changing as fast as ours, the riskiest thing you can do is be stable and take no risks. Taking risks builds your resistance so practise saying “yes” to opportunities and challenges – just for one day and then build to more.

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