Guest Blog by ELP Student Arthur Shi – Computer Science – College of Literature, Science, and the Arts – Class of 2019
What are soft skills?
According to Investopedia, soft skills are “…character traits and interpersonal skills that characterize a person’s relationships with other people. In the workplace, soft skills are considered a complement to hard skills, which refer to a person’s knowledge and occupational skills. Sociologists may use the term soft skills to describe a person’s ‘EQ’ or ‘Emotional Intelligence Quotient,’ as opposed to ‘IQ’ or ‘Intelligence Quotient.'”
That’s a pretty thorough definition, and one that most people would agree with. I actually think it’s unnecessarily complicated and doesn’t clearly explain the importance of soft skills. To me, “soft skills” are nearly synonymous with “communication skills”.
Soft skills mostly serve to complement expertise and experience, and to help you build relationships. How do you do that? By communicating!
I want to start by explaining why soft skills are important, through the lens of teamwork. How can you expect to be effective on a team if you don’t work well with your teammates? The reality is, working in any job or project requires you to play nicely with others. Think of it this way: communication is the price you pay for distributed workloads, fresh perspectives and new ideas, and strong relationships.
I’m an aspiring software developer, so a technical work context is the easiest for me to use as an example. I found a great article titled “Technical Leadership” by Brenda Jin, a software engineer at Slack. She describes misconceptions she used to have about engineering and how she thought that coding was going to be the most important part of the job. A lot of engineers feel this way! I used to! But she has a really succinct quote explaining why sitting in the corner, hacking away alone, isn’t viable:
“If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”
I recommend you read her article, as she makes great points on what she’s learned about technical leadership coming from an old mindset in which she wanted to be more of an “individual contributor” type than a manager. I’m not going to rehash all of her points here, because quite frankly she says it better than I would. And she has the experience to back it up, too.
In my opinion, her most important point is that leadership without great communication is impossible, and team progress without leadership is impossible. Granted that great visions are too big to be realized by individuals alone, it follows that without communication (soft skills), great visions cannot be realized. If you want to do the most important, valuable work that you possibly can, you need to learn to share it with others. Most great moments in life are really not about what happened – they’re about the people those moments were shared with.
There are more relationships in your life than just your immediate team at work. Some examples: how do you navigate tensions with a friend or significant other? How do you console someone who’s had a really bad day? How do you get to know a potential project partner and start getting to work on that idea that’s been in the back of your head for a while now?
Good relationships are built on a give-and-get principle that makes the world a little bit happier and more productive of a place. Surely, that’s important. Quality relationships open doors, be it a new career opportunity, a romance, a gym buddy, someone you get a drink with once in awhile to geek out about the latest episode of Rick and Morty — the possibilities are endless. The beautiful thing about relationships is that they involve two parties, and when communication is on point, both parties grow.
It takes some empathy to be able to understand what’s going well and not going well, and to talk about it so everyone’s on the same page. This isn’t always easy: like any other skill, soft skills take practice to develop!
To connect interpersonal growth and workplace relationships, I’ll give a personal example. This summer working as a software engineer at a startup, I’ve gotten a great view of how important soft skills really are, even in a primarily technical role. Learning to mesh with the team has led to some really quality friendships and lots of shared memories, a faster technical learning process and therefore better contributions to the code base as I’ve gotten better at asking questions about things I don’t understand, and improved technical and business confidence as I’ve become better about suggesting ideas to the team and offering critical feedback.
Okay, so if developing a meaningful career and having better relationships with others isn’t enough for you, don’t worry; there’s more! Being part of a team that grows is a form of personal growth in itself, but soft skills are also incredibly important in personal development.
A lot of times, people are too hard on themselves (that’s oftentimes me). On the flip side, it’s sometimes easy to be dishonest with yourself about what is and isn’t working out, and when you need to take more responsibility over the outcomes of your life (hey, that’s also me). If soft skills can help you deal with others who may fall anywhere on that spectrum, why wouldn’t they also help you in your relationship with yourself? You need to communicate with yourself just as much or more than you communicate with others.
As I think more consciously about soft skills, I find myself being better equipped to be rational about previously mindless emotions and thought processes. If your friend really tried their best on something and it didn’t work out, are you going to tell them they’re worthless? No, so don’t do it to yourself. If your friend loves to talk about some big vision but never puts in any work, are you going to let them set themselves up to fail? No, so don’t do it to yourself. You get the idea.
How should I develop soft skills?
Communication is context dependent, and there’s no one way to go about developing soft skills. Is it at work, or in a social setting? Does the person you’re working with prefer to take control, and let somebody else initiate and then add on? What are the other person’s views about the situation at hand, and do you agree or disagree with them? There’s a seemingly endless number of variables present, and I would be lying if I said I could codify all of these permutations in some kind of handbook.
Generally, be as transparent, empathetic, and respectful as possible. Tom Frank, the former executive director of Michigan’s Center For Entrepreneurship, recommends that you be conscious of how intense you’re being, and recognize what soft skills you lack, and finding ways to compensate. Beyond that, all I can really say is practice. Meet new people, get out of your comfort zone. When you do something awkward or piss somebody off, stop and ask yourself, how could I have handled that situation better? You’ll start to learn, and improvement will come. Hopefully I’ve convinced you that it’ll be worth the effort!