This feature first appeared in the Fall 2018 issue of Certification Magazine. Click here to get your own print or digital copy.
As I sit in my home office, devoid of people around me, cut off from the outside world, I cannot help but reflect on how interactions with people are so badly needed for tech workers to remain sane. Indeed, this is one reason why soft skills are so important, and why they form the cornerstone of business and technology today.
Soft skills underlie every aspect of our professional and personal lives. They are at the root of how humans communicate with each other. So what do we mean when we say “soft skills,” and what can you do to acquire them? How can you tell when your grasp of such skills could be improved, and how (and when) should they be put to use?
First and foremost, a good basic understanding of soft skills is important. Not only from a dictionary standpoint, but also from an application standpoint: which skills to apply, and when, and where. The rest of this article will discuss each of seven key soft skills individually.
Soft skills defined
Most people who study communication have broken soft skills down into seven key areas. These can be broad or narrow, depending on what you are measuring, as well as the specific individual you are measuring. They seven areas of focus are, in no particular order, verbal communication, written communication, organization, adaptability, working in teams, stress management, and humor.
Verbal Communication: If you need a dictionary definition of this soft skill, then you probably don’t talk to very many people … at all, ever. Let’s instead focus on its application:
When interacting with another person, no matter the situation, one should remain calm, speak clearly, and focus on the topic of conversation. Do not drift off topic. Allow your counterpart to complete his or her sentences. Be polite. These are key cornerstones of verbal communication. You will score much better in the listener’s eyes if you work on just these aspects of verbal communication.
Moving further into verbal communication, however, you need to work on encouraging others to speak freely by opening up your body posture. Ask questions that prompt a response, and then pay attention to what’s being said. Reduce tension by applying humor — which we will talk about in greater detail later on.
Drawing someone into conversation allows them to gauge your true warmth and openness, both to them and to the topic. This isn’t something that can be faked, but it can be improved. Use some of these key areas next time you have a face-to-face interview and really focus on your actions.
Watch how your counterpart responds. Try being more present and more engaged the next time you speak to a friend or loved one. Pay attention to non-verbal cues. Never be thinking of your next question before you have heard the other’ party’s response.
Employers seek this skill in their team members because they want to hire people who can effectively present the company’s message to its clients, internally or externally. They want to hire people who can be conversant, even if a given topic is too advanced for them to entirely grasp.
It’s been estimated that 90 percent of people can detect when verbal communication is not genuine. Remember that good verbal communication is something you must continually practice.
People who speak for a living will tell you that they can always find more effective ways to communicate verbally. Practice better verbal communication, even if it means just standing in front of a mirror, and you will be shocked at how easy it becomes over time.
Written Communication: The ability to write a clear, effective message to someone is one that I would personally prioritize. Most employers are looking for this skill because of e-mail. There is so much written communication in IT now (and everywhere else, really) that good writing is essential. If you are unable to write, then you are bound to struggle.
Good written communication starts with grammar, spelling, and clarity. The basics are easy to grasp — they are a cornerstone of public and private education. Effective writing, however, is a lifelong pursuit. Even the best books had an editor, a critic, a person who noticed a flaw.
Writing will always be an adventure for most, but there are guidelines that everyone can follow. First, have the right mindset. This is to say, always write with a goal in mind. What are you trying to say, and does what you wrote communicate that idea clearly and logically?
Next, always write in a straightforward and professional manner. Generally speaking, jokes and puns are best left to the realm of verbal communication. Finally, review important documents once or twice, with a friend or someone you trust. Never leave to chance how the recipient will interpret your message.
Organization: A place for everything and everything in its place — but how is this soft skill relevant, and what does it mean? Organizational skills are the ability to handle multiple and ongoing inputs while keeping everything straight. The ability to process, to weigh importance, and to prioritize. In addition to prioritization, being organized means knowing when to let go (and what to let go of), and how to move things forward.
To some degree, prioritization is determined by your employer. Your workgroup may dictate priorities, your boss may dictate priorities, or standard procedure may dictate priorities. Always be aware of “the rules” and use that to set your own individual guidelines.
Most people have at least some level of impulse to hoard, but this is rarely productive. What are those e-mails you’ve been keeping really doing for you? What are those boxes of notes actually helping? You may think you will go back to them someday, but for the most part you will not. I practice clear desk and clear inbox.
Every day, before I leave, my inbox and my desk are clear. Simply adopt a system that will allow you to do this. Also, ditch the sticky notes. They never do any good. You can, however, use the sticky notes in Outlook. They are good stepping stones to removing colored note reminders from your life completely.
Many people, when pressed with a lot to get done all at once, don’t know how to effectively manage their time. When seeking employment, always ask whether the company has a project management or task system internally. Ask your future boss how they juggle things and really understand how your priorities are going to come at you, and how the company sets them.
Organization is a skill that can be mastered. Every day you don’t have something slip through the cracks, every day you go home with a clean inbox and desk, and have no one questioning your priorities, you can count as day that you mastered the art of organization.
Adaptability: In today’s workplace, the only thing that will never change is that everything changes … constantly. You will receive conflicting assignments, get unclear directions, have to resort to Plan B, and later on go with Plan F or G.
Your employer is always looking for individuals who can roll with the punches and sort through conflicts. Adaptability is a particularly prized job skill in the increasingly mutable world of IT, with job descriptions forever in flux, and employees rotating into different roles. Your ability to adapt to changing situations and expectations makes you more valuable.
You can maximize your adaptability by always remaining calm and poised. Accept new responsibilities as they come, ask for clear guidelines to help you move forward, and never be fearful of change. You also need to be well versed in stress management, something we’ll cover in greater detail a little further down.
Teamwork: The ability to work in teams borrows from several other soft skills, and may itself be the most important soft skill of all. Your ability to give and take from teammates to provide support and understanding, while you give guidance and critique, is one of the hallmarks of good teamwork.
You will know that you are well on the path to mastery with this skill set when your teammates are giving unsolicited feedback to others about you being a person who anyone can go to. You want teammates to feel that you are trustworthy and reliable, and that you care about others.
Employers will almost always question references about this skill set when they are hiring, and will watch your actions and listen for unsolicited feedback after you are hired. Always pay attention to your fellow team members, and always work on being (or becoming) a person people can rely on.
Stress Management: Most people know what stress management entails, but they rarely practice or engage in it. We let everyday stress pile up until it eats at our ability to maintain good working relationships.
Don’t allow yourself to incorrectly think that stress can be worked through — that you can ignore it and it will go away. Stress doesn’t go away. It gets replaced with more of the same, or a different kind of stress. Ignore it long enough, and the stress of finding a new job will be added to your list.
You can obtain mastery-level status at stress management by following a few simple rules. While the fight-or-flight response is built into us, your reaction to it can be controlled and built up. As Clint Eastwood’s “Dirty Harry” Callahan says at the end of Magnum Force, “A man’s got to know his limitations.”
Take some time to for self-analysis: What are your stress triggers? What tends to make you freak out, even just a little bit? If you can identify causes of stress and recognize the behaviors that lead to those causes, then you’ll have the tools to hold yourself accountable and take action before you snap.
If your boss comes to you with an unreasonable demand every week, and it messes with your head, then just knowing that about yourself can help you get to a place where whatever outrageous request it is seems manageable. Go to the gym, enjoy a good meal, get a massage — maybe even arrange a frank discussion with the offending party. What will fix your stress? Find out by paying attention to yourself.
Remember to focus on positive pressure release mechanisms. Try to actively steer clear of such negative coping habits as smoking, drinking, overeating, emotional suppression, and procrastination.
Employers are looking for individuals who can handle large volumes of work and rise to meet ongoing demands, who are adaptable to change, and who can really drive the bus, no matter where their seat is. One further caution about stress management: It is possible to crave stress, deadlines, and conflict. Don’t succumb. As much as possible, try to stay anchored in a stress reduction mindset.
Humor: I’ve chosen to discuss this last, though it’s generally the first thing to pop out of my bag of tricks. I use humor to disarm people, to ease tensions in the room, to self-deprecate when I have messed up, or to just lighten the mood.
No matter how you use it, or what your intentions are, the most important aspect of humor is knowing when it’s appropriate. Timing is everything. One rule to live by: Try to never be the only one in the room who’s in on the joke. If no one else thinks you’re funny, then you’re befuddling your coworkers at best, and you may be actively annoying them.
Potential employers can generally, to their own satisfaction, gauge your ability to use humor productively with very little exposure to your incisive wit. Feel free to lighten the mood, but don’t overdo it.
Many highly successful comedians work on their best bits for months. Don’t be afraid to have a few reliable arrows in your humor quiver, or to engage in target practice. Speaking of targets, however, remember that individuals should never be the butt of your jokes. And when responding to other people’s humor, never enjoy a laugh at someone else’s expense.
In summary, I often write about certifications and hard knowledge being things that you should seek out and master. Truth be told, however, acquiring and improving soft skills is perhaps the most important training you will ever undertake. Striving to master these skills won’t just make you a more successful IT worker — it will make you a better human being. Good luck with your adventure!