Firm Up Your Soft Skills
Soft skills are the muscle supporting your hard skills.
by Jose “Joe” Ascensio
Are you a little soft in the area of soft skills? Maybe you’re not sure what soft skills are? This article will explore hard vs. soft skills and give some practical tips about firming up the “four Cs” of soft skills: communication, collaboration, critical thinking, and confidence.
Use ’em or Lose ’em
Soft skills are like muscle: If you don’t use them, they’ll atrophy. You need to exercise your soft skills to keep them firm and ready to use when you need them.
What is the difference between a soft skill and a hard skill? Think of it this way: Hard skills get you the job. Soft skills help you keep it.
Hard skills are knowledge you acquired from on-the-job training or education. They are the basic, required things you must know to do your job. For example, knowing how to operate computer software is a hard skill.
Soft skills are the icing on the cake that make you truly successful. Examples include understanding what others are saying (communication), working well with colleagues (collaboration), making reliable decisions based on experience (critical thinking), and taking action (confidence). Let’s take a closer look at the four Cs to be sure you are doing all you can in each area.
When people think about communicating, they usually think about talking. But that is like traveling in only one direction on a two-way street. Communication involves talking, listening, and paying attention to non-verbal cues such as body language, gestures, and posture. Have you ever talked to someone who had his arms crossed or rolled his eyes? These are two very good signs your communication was not well received.
To be sure your message gets across, ask questions — but not questions with yes or no answers. Instead, ask probing questions such as “What do you think?” and “What would be an alternative?” These types of questions employ the Socratic Method, which is a great way to know your communication hits your target.
Just working on the same project with others is not collaboration. To collaborate you need to work together to achieve a common goal. If you are in a work meeting where someone has an idea and everyone else agrees, are you collaborating? Probably not. Now, imagine that someone has an idea, and another person builds on it, and then a third person adds even more value. That is collaboration: working together to create a final result that is better than what could have been achieved by an individual.
Using your experience and knowledge to solve problems is critical thinking. The problem doesn’t have to be solved in 30 seconds or less; you can take your time to do the analysis. It’s important to use communication and collaboration when thinking critically with others. But don’t limit yourself to collaborative, critical thinking; it can also be a solo activity.
Look at a situation and ask yourself, “What have I done (or learned) that can help me in this situation?” You may not have the exact answer, but you may have a few experiences in your background that, when applied to this situation, will help solve the issue. Another important part of critical thinking is evaluation and feedback. Do not be timid: When others apply their experience, build on the idea and help them process the information to find the best solution.
To have confidence in what you say — to be able to back it up and know what you are talking about — takes time. Just as your muscles respond to regular workouts, soft skills like confidence will develop over time. Have you heard of sayings such as, “dress for success” and “believe it and it will happen?” If you’re not yet confident, you can start by having a positive outlook. Let that little voice in your head tell you good things (affirmations).
Confidence also exudes through body language. When you look professional, dress the part, and speak with authority, you show confidence. Keep it up, and you’ll soon become confident!
Firm Up Your Soft Skills with Exercise
The next time you’re communicating or working in a group situation, try some exercises to improve your effectiveness (at work or at home):
Pay attention to body language. Watch a conversation: Can you tell if the communication is two-way? How is each person holding his or her head and arms? Is the listener focused on the speaker or is he or she distracted? The next time you have a conversation, watch the other person’s body language for insight on how he or she is receiving what you are saying.
Think of a conversation when you were speaking with someone who really likes details. Then, think about a time when you have spoken with a boss or someone who wants a brief, to-the-point summary. Consider the words he used and the tone of his voice. The next time you speak with someone who likes details, provide a lot of details and see how the person responds.
When you’re in a group environment, think about a sports team. Is your group acting like a football team? Is someone blocking, someone else passing (the idea), and another person running with the ball? If so, you’re collaborating. Try adding some content to the discussion and get others involved for a true group collaboration.
When you notice someone using past education to solve a current problem, help him in his critical thinking process. Use the Socratic Method (ask open-ended questions) to help him dive deeper into the process.
Apply affirmations. When that voice in your head tells you that you’re not good enough, not experienced enough, or that you do not have what it takes, tell that voice to be quiet. Let your self-talk be positive. Think, “I can do this” and “I have what it takes.” Visualize yourself achieving your goal. Professional ball players visualize themselves making the basket before taking a shot. If they can do it, you can, too.
Jose “Joe” Ascensio lives in Kansas City, Missouri, where he is a consultant, author, and speaker on topics related to self-improvement and technology. He has a master’s degree in education with an emphasis in adult education. Ascensio’s bachelor’s degrees are in computer information systems. His passions in life are family, technology, and training.