What are Soft Skills?
The phrase ‘soft skills’ is often used to describe the skills which characterise relationships with other people, or which are about how you approach life and work.
Others phrases that are often used for these types of skills include: ‘people skills’, ‘interpersonal skills’, ‘social skills’ or ‘transferable skills’.
‘Hard skills’, by contrast, is a phrase usually used to describe job-specific skills. Examples of such skills include professional skills like bricklaying or accountancy, medical expertise such as diagnosis and treatment, or other skills that can be taught and whose presence is testable through exams.
Ironically, for many people, the so-called soft skills are often some of the hardest skills to develop.
The Relative Importance of Hard and Soft Skills
Job-related expertise is essential in any profession and in many other careers. However, over the last twenty to thirty years, understanding has grown that perhaps the soft skills may ultimately be more important in determining levels of success.
That is, the hard skills are a basic minimum necessary in order to operate in that particular workplace. Whether or not you are successful in your career may depend on how you relate to other people and to work: the so-called soft skills.
Principles of Competition
Think of soft skills in the light of competition principles.
Imagine you are a company producing something, let’s say light bulbs. You come up with a revolutionary new technology. Your light bulbs are suddenly much better than others and your profits go up.
But, after a while, your competitors get hold of the technology: you license its use, perhaps, or they develop alternatives. Suddenly, light bulbs are all the same again and your profits are suffering. You still need the new technology, but you also need a new competitive edge.
Hard skills are like your technology: anyone can acquire them, with training, and they are necessary. Without them you will not be able to operate in the workplace. Soft skills are your unique selling point and give you a competitive edge in the workplace, and perhaps even in life.
Many people have characterised soft skills as those relating to Emotional Intelligence, the ability to recognise and manage your own and others’ emotions. However, in reality, they go beyond that, and into the wider realms of how you organise yourself and how you approach life.
The good news is that you can learn and develop soft skills as well as hard skills.
The bad news is that it’s often much harder, and there is no easy measure of success.
Like hard skills, soft skills require a lot of practice to make you really skilled at using them. Unlike hard skills, there are no exams to prove that you can do them. You measure your success in developing soft skills in how well you manage the relationships with those around you: family, friends, and co-workers, as well as customers and those who provide you with goods or services.
What are the Most Important Soft Skills?
It’s hard to judge which soft skills are most important, but this list is broadly what employers mean when they talk about good soft skills and the skills which are most likely to enable you to build constructive working relationships with others, or to be a constructive and helpful employee.
Communication skills are always top of the ‘essential skills’ list in any job advertisement. People with strong communication skills can build relationships (from the initial building rapport through to a longer-term relationship), listen well, and vary their communication to suit the circumstances.
If you spend time on nothing else, work on your communication skills.
Valued by employers for many reasons, being able to make decisions is key to getting on in life. Sometimes the actual decision doesn’t even matter; what matters is that you have made one and moved on.
People who are self-motivated get on by themselves. They don’t need close supervision and they are good to work with because they are generally positive about life and can be counted upon to keep going. It also helps to work on your personal resilience and adaptability to change.
These are the set of soft skills that we least expect someone to develop by themselves. There are many leadership training courses available and much has been written about how to develop your leadership skills.
Our leadership skills pages describe many of the skills needed for effective leadership and how to develop your leadership style.
Like leadership skills, there are many training courses to teach you how to work well in a team. However, there is also plenty of thinking to suggest that good communication skills, particularly good listening skills, together with an ability to build rapport will go a long way to support your ability to work well in a team.
Creativity and problem-solving skills are highly valued because they are hard to develop. There are many people who believe that creative thinkers are born, not made, and there are certainly some people who find these skills much easier. But, like other skills, you can develop them if you work to do so and our pages on these topics will give you some ideas about how to do this.
7. Time Management and ability to work under pressure
Many would say that these two skills, which often go hand-in-hand, are more an attitude than a skill. However they can also be developed and honed, which is why we include them as skills. Highly valued by employers, they are also very useful for organising a family or a team, and for making sure that the job gets done.
A final word
Of course this list is not exhaustive. Just one glance round SkillsYouNeed will show you that there is a huge range of soft skills. Any given employer or individual may place more or less emphasis on these or others.
However, work to develop the skills in this list is likely to pay off in a job search, in any job or career on which you embark, and in life more generally.