Career Development

A Guide to Soft Skills

August 25, 2020

Soft skills describe a variety of aptitudes and behaviours. Unlike “hard” skills, which often describe technical abilities, soft skills include any skills you developed beyond your technical competencies and intellectual knowledge. Identifying and improving your soft skills gives you abilities that apply to a variety of job roles and fields. In this article, we define what soft skills are, why they are important, examples of soft skills, how you can improve soft skills and how to highlight your soft skills when applying to a job.

What are soft skills?

Soft skills are a set of personality traits formed by habits. For example, interpersonal skills and communication skills are specific types of soft skills that many employees value and look for in candidates.

There are many different soft skills that you can include on your resume or in a cover letter. Examples of some of the most sought-after soft skills include:

  • Communicating effectively
  • Ability to work well in a team
  • Dependability
  • Adaptability
  • Ability to resolve conflicts
  • Flexibility
  • Leadership skills
  • Problem-solving
  • Research
  • Creative expression
  • Humility
  • Altruism

The importance of soft skills

Soft skills are important in every area of the workforce. This includes resume writing, interviewing and being on the job. You use soft skills to communicate with everyone you encounter as you navigate your career journey. Looking for work, you may find that employers ask for specific soft skills in their job descriptions. A call for a human resources professional may list “active listening” as a desired skill, while a job for a marketing specialist might list “teamwork” and “flexibility” as desired traits.

Soft skills may be transferable. You may find you can use them in different careers and diverse industries. This means that you might already possess the traits required for a position, even if the exact profile isn't a complete match. Pay attention to positions that require candidates with soft skills you possess. Maintain an updated resume that reflects your most relevant soft skills.

It's also important to consider how you might demonstrate your soft skills during interviews. For example, you can convey your problem-solving skills when answering a question like, “Describe the way you overcame a difficulty.” When the hiring manager asks you for references, think of people who can confirm your strengths.

Examples of soft skills

Soft skills are often innate personality traits, though you can also learn some of these skills. The following are some key soft skills:

  • Communication
  • Problem-solving
  • Creativity
  • Flexibility
  • Work ethic

Communication

Good communication skills can help you during the interview process and throughout your career. Being able to communicate well means being adept at conveying your message to others in different situations. For example, if you find yourself working in a team on a project, you may need to communicate that an idea will not be effective. Being able to deliver this message tactfully and without creating conflict is a desirable trait that employers value.

Related communication skills include:

  • Active listening
  • Conflict resolution
  • Organization
  • Confidence

Problem-solving

Resolving issues quickly and effectively is an ability much valued by employers. You may have to draw on your knowledge of an industry to resolve an issue quickly. Being able to collaborate with colleagues to find a solution is also an important demonstration of your capabilities to cooperate.

Related problem-solving skills include:

  • Creativity
  • Teamwork
  • Research
  • Risk management

Creativity

Creativity refers to a combination of soft and technical skills. Creative employees often discover new ways to perform tasks, refine processes and identify new avenues for a business to explore. Creativity is a valuable skill to have in virtually any role.

Related creativity skills include:

  • Ability to learn from others
  • Being open-minded
  • Curiosity
  • Risk-taking

Flexibility

How well do you adapt to change? In technology-driven fields or startup environments, being adaptable is an important skill to possess. Changes in methods, processes, tools or the clients you work with may occur unexpectedly. Employees with the ability to adapt to new circumstances quickly are valuable in many jobs and industries.

Related adaptability skills include:

  • Versatility
  • Optimism
  • Organization
  • Consistency

Work ethic

Work ethic reflects a commitment to completing tasks and duties in a timely manner with a focus on quality. Even as you learn new technical skills, you can demonstrate your work ethic by being punctual and respectful of your employer's goals. Often, employers prefer employees who have a strong work ethic over a skilled person who lacks enthusiasm.

Related work ethic skills include:

  • Attention to detail
  • Integrity
  • Persistence
  • Time management

How to improve your soft skills

Soft skills may be valued over technical skills because they are typically traits that have been developed over a long time and may be challenging to teach. However, anyone can develop soft skills at any point in their career. For example, if an employer is seeking someone skilled in conflict resolution, you may want to practice this skill by working through conflicts with others.

Follow these steps to improve your soft skills:

  1. Choose a skill and practice it consistently
  2. Model the positive soft skills you observe in others
  3. Set goals to improve soft skills
  4. Look for resources to help you learn

1. Choose a skill and practice it consistently

You can nurture most soft skills as a matter of routine. For example, focusing on being punctual for every appointment you have, either personal or professional, will improve your work ethic.

2. Model the positive soft skills you observe in others

People you work with who exhibit excellent soft skills can inspire you to follow their behaviour. Incorporate their methods into your own daily routine. For example, effective communicators often take notes when others are talking during meetings. This may help to organize your thoughts and prepare you to resolve important issues.

3. Set goals to improve soft skills

Be specific about your goals. Carefully read performance reviews at work and ask trusted friends and colleagues for feedback. This may assist you in identifying key areas you can improve on, as well as determining your strengths so you can highlight them on your resume and in interviews. A specific job may help you prioritize which skills you want to work on.

4. Look for resources to help you learn

There are many resources available to help you improve your soft skills like books, podcasts, online classes and workshops. Some of these options require payment, but many are free of charge and you can access them at any time. You may wish to explore various types of resources so you can find out which means are most suitable to your learning style.

Highlighting your soft skills during the job search

Soft skills are important elements of your overall suitability for work. When applying for jobs, you can highlight your soft skills on your resume and in your cover letter. Here are a few ways to highlight your soft skills:

Soft skills for resumes

Your resume should include a section that showcases your hard and soft skills as they relate to the position you are applying for. When deciding which skills to include on your resume, look at what the job description calls for and consider the skills you possess.

Skills listed on a resume could look like this:

  • Technical skills: Learning Technology, Mac OS, Windows OS, Blackboard
  • Additional skills: Strong communication skills, highly empathic, passionate and motivated

Soft skills for cover letters

Strong cover letters include at least one established and relevant soft skill that shows why you may be an ideal candidate for the role. Use the cover letter to explain how your soft skills align with the company's mission and/or goals. Perhaps your highly developed communication skills are a good fit for a customer service position.

Here is an example of how you can use your cover letter to describe your soft skills:

'My colleagues and manager highly regarded my passion and creativity in my previous job. For example, I suggested a sales campaign aimed at a younger demographic for one of our products. I assembled a team, and together we successfully implemented the campaign with positive results. My fellow team members and managers applauded my ability to maintain a positive outlook as we worked through some issues. In the end, we were able to establish a significant amount of new interest in our company.'

Though hard skills are often key to completing technical tasks, good soft skills can distinguish you as the kind of candidate employers are eager to hire. These skills also contribute to a higher likelihood of being promoted in a company. Highlighting the soft skills you have at all stages of the job search process is extremely important. Continuing to develop those skills once you find the job you're looking for will ensure that your career is always advancing and you are reaching your potential so that you can best serve the organization you work for.

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