Ways to Develop Soft Skills

See also: The Skills Gap

The skills that propel us forward in life may be deemed “soft”, but they are remarkably powerful.

Our ability to think critically, solve problems, resolve conflict and interact effectively are the source of the U.S.’ largest proficiency gap, according to 44 percent of business leaders surveyed by Adecco. Soft skills not only affect our careers, they can also impact our ability to successfully navigate through life.

The good news is that soft skills develop through experience, and we each have the ability to nurture them, given just a little structure, focus and repetition.

Creating space for communication to occur is foundational for this kind of growth, so consider how you might increase personal connections whether at work, school or during extracurricular activities, and spend time learning about others. You will learn a great deal about their interests, strengths and weaknesses, and you’ll also be practicing the art of communication.

Often the best way to improve a skill is to practice.

These additional tips can help strengthen a range of soft skills:

Take charge and seek group projects to solve problems

When people are engaged in an activity, they internalize what they are learning more effectively.

The faculty saw this at college prep school Culver Academies, where students often described science, performing arts and video production among their favorite subjects. The best way to engage students, we realized, was to make learning a hands-on, team-oriented experience. It’s also an ideal way to develop critical thinking and leadership skills in any environment - even business.

You may be perfectly capable of solving problems independently, but seeking opportunities to work in groups allows you to navigate different personalities, resolve conflict, negotiate and compromise - especially given a common goal of solving a problem. You, and the rest of the group, learn through the process of interacting.

Another way group work can improve soft skills is through the need for adaptability. In today’s modern workforce, industries and regulations can change at any time, the same with group dynamics. Having the ability to adapt well to changes in the environment is highly valuable. No matter which way things move, being able to switch gears and adapt well to the new conditions can make you a go-to person, particularly in times of upheaval.

Take responsibility and claim a role

Many of us have been in groups where one or two people wind up doing all of the work.

In this scenario, the members lose out on the value of being part of a team. The way to make sure everyone learns is for each person to have a role and be accountable for a result: this is the foundation of leadership development.

For example, a team at Culver comprises:

  • The taskmaster: making sure the conversation stays on track.
  • The facilitator: coordinating within the team, assisting where needed.
  • The recorder: documenting the team’s progress.
  • The timekeeper: making sure the team can deliver within a specified time frame.

The nature of the role may vary according to the project or organization, but the important thing is that you assume responsibility and encourage team members to do so as well. This way everyone masters a sense of personal responsibility, learns to lead in at least one area, and is in a position to take increasing ownership in projects over time.

It is also beneficial to try taking on different roles within groups. Learning to be just as effective as a taskmaster as a timekeeper can give you ample opportunities to be a better team player, taking on whatever role is necessary for the continued success of the group.

Meet with mentors regularly and seek narrative feedback

Most people need more than a quick email or written feedback to understand how they are doing.

Misinterpretation and a lack of the big picture can sabotage communication, particularly with supervisor or mentor relationships. One-on-one meetings provide a much better way to give and receive feedback, as well as establish a game plan for the next steps. Learning to be open and receptive to feedback is an important skill, allowing you to make needed changes as well as learning to give any appropriate feedback

Seek such opportunities proactively: this is the time to verbally walk through issues, performance and discuss successes, failures, next steps and possible direction. It’s also when accountability comes into play and real discussion can occur about skill development, goals and career path.

Meeting regularly on a one-on-one basis is a great way to improve communication skills. Not just in the way you communicate and listen to but also learning more about specific co-worker’s non-verbal skills.

Meeting face-to-face also allows for body language’s role in communication to have a place in the conversation, as well as requiring a greater focus on the conversation and the person you’re having it with. The distractions that can arise when on the phone or through email, for the most part, no longer exist.

Seek challenges and set clear, specific goals

Goals help us measure performance, but they also serve as a career and personal development roadmap. Use them similarly for soft skills; you may spot opportunities for growth, including appropriate challenges that reinforce these skills.

For example, you may have a strong work ethic but may be lacking the ability to communicate clearly and concisely. You can be a strong subject expert but you must be able to communicate on level that is high enough to be understood but deep enough to have meaning. That is exactly the sort of nuanced feedback you can ask for in the aforementioned one-on-one.

You might not feel ready, but consider taking on responsibilities a little outside of your reach. People do learn more outside of their comfort zone. The truth is that you might not be ready for the task, but that’s what your team, mentors, friends and family provide: guidance when necessary. Whether you fail or succeed, you will learn.

Having all the skills necessary to do the job isn’t enough anymore.

You must be able to work with co-workers, supervisors, and other colleagues in the office setting. Undervaluing the importance of soft skills and not seeking the necessary ways to improve them is a mistake.

Strengthening workforce soft skills means creating a team that not only can do the technical work needed but also demonstrates excellent collaboration, all of which can make the workplace a better, more productive environment.

The Skills You Need Guide to Getting a Job

Further Reading from Skills You Need

The Skills You Need Guide to Getting a Job

Develop the skills you need to get that job.

This eBook is essential reading for potential job-seekers. Not only does it cover identifying your skills but also the mechanics of applying for a job, writing a CV or resume and attending interviews.

About the Author

Kevin MacNeil has served as the chief academic officer at Culver Academies since 2001.

He has taught a variety of courses at the college and secondary school levels in humanities, literature, mathematics and philosophy. Dr. MacNeil has given lectures and workshops on teaching and learning, (especially the teaching and learning model of the Academies) and faculty professional development to audiences in the United States and Canada.