I’ve worked in HR, customer service, and event planning. I’ve listened as co-workers, customers, and friends consciously and loudly discussed the skills they’d like to develop.
Oh, I need to master Excel. We need Excel training.
I’m never going to understand how our CMS works—I really need to spend more time on it.
I still don’t get content marketing. I need help.
Yes, all of that is important. It’s definitely a good idea to know how to maximize your spreadsheets, use your website, and market your content. But you know what? You can learn—or at least get started—on all of these skills by spending some time on Google on a Sunday afternoon. You know what I almost never hear?
I’m not sure how to talk to Ben. We have to work on this project together, and I’m pretty sure he hates me.
I’m really worried about how my presentation went. I should ask my boss how he thinks it went.
I’m really upset right now—that email pissed me off. How am I going to respond?
These problems require soft skills. Maybe Ben doesn’t like you, but you still have to figure out how to work together. Your presentation might not have gone well, but it’s better to get feedback now, instead of giving two bad presentations in a row. And maybe an email did make you mad, but you’re going to have to answer it at some point.
The problem is that most people don’t spend much time thinking about their soft skills. Regardless of whether it’s a lack of knowledge or a lack of awareness, it’s worth remedying, because you use soft skills every single day—even when you aren’t thinking about them consciously.
Having well developed soft skills will help you have better conversations, enjoy your work environment, and create a closer relationship with your team.
How Do You Know If You Have Soft Skills?
Soft skills are personality traits and interpersonal skills that directly affect your relationships with other people. They stem from who you are and how you interact with the world around you. Luckily, these skills can be identified, harnessed, and strengthened.
You know those people who seem to know everybody? They know the names of people in other departments, their titles, and maybe even tell you who owns a pet or how long someone has been with the company. They always know the best people to talk to about an issue (even if they don’t know them personally).
Or, perhaps you have a friend who is the go-to person for advice. Everyone (including you!) is comfortable talking to her.
These people have wonderful soft skills. It’s not relevant whether they’re the smartest person in the room: They’re comfortable interacting with others and others feel good interacting with them.
But, it’s not only the presence of soft skills that’s noticeable in your colleagues: You might also be able to name co-workers who lack soft skills. Maybe there’s one woman in your office who nobody wants to talk to. She’s difficult. She makes a federal case out of everything you ask her about. People dismiss her as rude and make a conscious effort to avoid her. The problem isn’t her personality—the problem is her soft skills. She has almost no soft skills and is unable to effectively interact with the people she works with.
Categorizing Soft Skills: Internal Vs. External
I break soft skills down into two main categories: internal and external—inspired by Lei Han’s discussion of “self-management” vs. “people skills.” Internal soft skills relate directly to how you interact with yourself (think: self-talk). External soft skills relate directly to how you talk to and handle the people around you. And yes, you’ll need both to be successful.
The skills below are the main soft skills I use in my own career and have repeatedly highlighted when coaching co-workers. If you focus on improving these skills, you will have a happier and less stressful work life.
Internal Soft Skills
- Accepting criticism
- Critical thinking/problem solving
- Emotional management
- Growth mindset
External Soft Skills
- Collaborative teamwork
- Effective communication
- Interpersonal skills
- Managing conflict
- Expectation management
Keep on Keepin’ On
Soft skills don’t have to be confusing, but they do take effort. Just as you go to the gym to get stronger through repeatedly straining your muscles, you have to actively exercise your soft skills. The key is consistency: Practice skills from the list above in the office, as well as in your everyday life. Trust me, the results are worth it—less stress, easier conversations, and a happier day at work.