Soft skills are a defining factor in how a person works and how successful they’ll be in a particular role. However, they’re also tricky to measure and can be subjective based on who’s assessing them.
Learn more about what soft skills are, what makes them important and how to improve your own soft skills if you’re looking to strengthen your professional abilities.
What are soft skills?
Soft skills are personal characteristics that define how a person solves problems, interacts with other people, and manages their work. They’re sometimes called interpersonal skills or essential skills.
Soft skills differ from hard skills, also called technical skills, which are linked to quantifiable abilities like knowledge of Microsoft Excel or native-level proficiency in Spanish. Whereas hard skills are tangible and easy to measure (i.e. five years’ experience in CSS coding), soft skills are more intangible and less easily quantified.
Hard skills are typically tied to a specific field or position, but soft skills are transferable, meaning they can benefit you in many different environments. Candidates with strong soft skills are highly adaptable and can often be successful in a range of roles. For example, someone who’s a great communicator might excel as a public relations manager, a sales representative, or an educator.
Examples of soft skills
While this is by no means an exhaustive list, here are some of the most common soft skills employers look for when hiring.
Attention to detail
How much concern do you have for the little things? This impacts your ability to meet deadlines and get the specifics right—things that matter a lot when dealing with clients, patients, or guests.
Do you work well with others? It’s hard to think of a job that doesn’t require some level of collaboration with other people.
Many jobs rely on the ability to convey information clearly. When it doesn’t happen, things fall through the cracks, and teams are left second guessing their directions. Soft skills in this area can pertain to both written and verbal communication.
Being able to help others work out disagreements and smooth over feelings of anger is a valuable soft skill that can serve you well in fields from law to customer service.
The ability to come up with unique ideas is one of the most sought-after soft skills because it’s innate—not something that’s easily taught.
Professionals in every industry can benefit from the ability to solve problems in practical and creative ways.
This describes your ability to connect with and understand people on a personal level. It’s most critical in leadership positions and those that have a high level of interaction with customers, but it’s also beneficial in dealing with colleagues.
Being able to inspire others and motivate action are defining qualities of a great leader.
Related: How to be a Leader in the Workplace
Giving someone your undivided attention is usually a skill we associate with our personal relationships, but it’s also an important one professionally.
What is your capacity for tolerating delays, even when they’re frustrating? It’s a skill that feeds into many others, like conflict resolution and critical thinking.
How well do you balance your tasks with the available time? Most hiring managers want to see this skill so they can trust that you won’t have to be micromanaged.
This is an intrinsic belief in the value of a job well done. It impacts your engagement with your job and your ability to advance in your career.
Soft skills and hard skills can sometimes overlap. Learning a hard skill can help you build upon a soft skill, and vice versa. For example, HTML coding is a hard skill, but learning it will also increase your problem-solving abilities.
Life experience often contributes to soft skills, too. Raising children can strengthen your patience, while moving frequently may make you adaptable, and so on.
Why soft skills are important in the workplace
Soft skills are invaluable in the workplace because they not only define how well you’re going to be able to work with your colleagues and clients, but the way in which you’ll navigate those relationships. Two people who are both strong leaders may clash if they have different leadership styles, and the same goes for people who communicate differently.
Soft skills also determine how well a candidate will be able to perform in their role. Some positions, like customer service, rely on soft skills much more than others that have less person-to-person interaction. A candidate who has excellent technical capabilities but lackluster soft skills (sometimes described as being “great on paper” but not in person) might fail because they can’t collaborate with their teammates. Or, in the reverse scenario, someone who’s super creative might not be a great fit if they lack the hard skills to put their ideas into practice.
Thus, it’s imperative for managers to screen for soft skills as well as hard skills when hiring and prioritize finding the right mix of both of them.
As a candidate, playing up your soft skills can help hiring managers to see how you’d fit into a role. While you might lack a certain technical skill or the desired number of years of experience, emphasizing your determination and work ethic might convince a hiring manager that you’re up for the challenge. So, it pays to focus on building soft skills just as you work to continuously broaden your technical skills.
How to improve your soft skills
Figure out which soft skills are most important for your goals
First, analyze which skills will serve you best on the career path you want to take. Have your sights set on the c-suite? Then you’ll need to be a great leader. Hoping to be an innovator in your field? Then you’ll need perseverance and the ability to help others see your ideas clearly.
Take a look at job listings for the roles you’re interested in along with the jobs that might come after them down the road. The skills and qualifications sections are a wealth of information on what soft skills hiring managers are looking for.
Ask for feedback
As you look to sharpen your soft skills, it’s helpful to know where you stand and where you might be lacking. You may have covered some of this in a recent performance review, but if not, ask your manager directly. A mentor or trusted colleague can also help you take an objective look at where you might brush up your skills.
Informational interviews are another great resource for gaining insight into the most important soft skills for the job you want to hold.
Try something new
If we don’t challenge ourselves, it’s impossible to grow. Expand your soft skills by stepping outside your comfort zone and taking on a leadership role, asking for more responsibility, or volunteering to take the lead on a project.
Take advantage of online resources
It’s never been easier to learn a new skill from an expert thanks to sites like YouTube and Udemy. Many colleges even make courses available online for free that can help you hone your soft skills. The University of Washington, for example, offers a free online public speaking course that’s helped hundreds of thousands of virtual students speak to groups more confidently. To find them, just do a Google search for “[your desired skill] + free online course.”