At school, you are likely learning skills like using a computer and software programs, typing, writing and solving math problems. As you transition from school to employment, you will continue to learn technical skills required to be successful in your chosen career. These are known as hard skills because they are measurable skills that enable you to tackle specific job responsibilities.
As you continue to learn hard skills, it is important to also practice soft skills because they will be equally important when it comes time to find a job. Soft skills are non-technical skills related to your personality, behavior, characteristics and attitude. They include interpersonal (how you relate to others), communications and listening skills. Are you reliable? Compassionate? Flexible? These are soft skills, too.
Employers are looking more and more for candidates with strong soft skills, but they aren’t only important for getting in the door where you want to work. If you are a good listener and collaborate well with others, you are more likely to connect with your future colleagues and be successful in your job. Improving soft skills will also help you become more independent, build confidence in yourself and make friends.
How to Learn and Improve Soft Skills
While we learn hard skills through education and on-the-job training, soft skills are not typically learned through formal education. So, how do you learn them?
First, take a moment to celebrate your strengths. Maybe you are confident when speaking one-on-one with a friend or telling others about a favorite hobby. Perhaps you are honest, organized or creative. Think about the soft skills that you already do well. Then, think about the areas in which you want to improve. A few ideas to practice soft skills include:
- Form study groups with classmates to practice teamwork.
- Take a chance and start up a conversation with someone at school or a community activity.
- Volunteer for a cause you support. While volunteering, you will likely have opportunities to practice soft skills such as verbal and non-verbal communications, time management, problem solving and collaboration.
- Practice speaking for yourself, making your own choices and purchasing items on your own. For example, when eating at a restaurant, order your own meal rather than allowing a family member or friend to do this for you.
Another great way to improve soft skills is to practice with a mentor. A mentor can be a family member, friend, colleague, job coach or anyone you consider a role model who supports and inspires you. With your mentor, try role playing various scenarios related to the skills you would like to practice. This might include greeting co-workers, working on a team assignment, interviewing for a job or having a lunch break conversation. Here are a few tips for success:
- Pause in between thoughts so others can join the conversation.
- Make sure to talk about their interests as well as yours.
- Watch for non-verbal cues such as eye contact, voice tone, body proximity and gestures.
- Pay close attention when your mentor is speaking to practice and demonstrate strong listening skills.
- Ask your mentor for feedback so you can continue to learn, practice and improve. Accepting and learning from feedback is a valuable skill that will help you in any job.
Advocate for Yourself
When you secure a job, you may want to consider communicating openly with your manager about areas you need support. For example, if you prefer written communications over email, you might request that most conversations with co-workers be conducted over email, instant messaging or texting. If eye contact is uncomfortable for you, let people know. Don’t hesitate to request reasonable accommodations to help you perform your best work. Examples of accommodations include a modified work schedule or assistive technology.
If you are working with a job coach, he or she can help you with these conversations and provide resources for your employer to better understand the best way to communicate with and support you.
Above all else, be confident in yourself – believe you can do it! If you can’t figure out how to accomplish your goal, then find a way to ask for help. You are your best advocate!