Skill sets are something that we all have in common. We may be working to gain or leverage our skills, thinking through what skills a new job role requires, or assessing how well our employees have utilized their skills through their job performance. Often at work, we don’t end up thinking beyond skills in these ways. However, many people break down skills into what we typically discuss as ‘hard skills’ or ‘soft skills.’ Hard skills tend to be more technical skills. Typically we learn or acquire these skills through formal training, education programs, or on-the-job experiences. Hard skills relate to the understanding and abilities needed to perform your job. Many managers and organizations place a high value on these skills because they're usually relatively easy to measure and assess. Depending on your industry, hard skills might be the only kind of skills that you’re used to thinking or caring about. However, soft skills are equally important for teams, if not more so.
Soft skills relate to interpersonal communication, listening, emotional intelligence, and empathy. Unlike hard skills, soft skills are usually not technical and connect more to how you show up at work as opposed to what you do at work. Soft skills can be learned, but for many of us, these are skills we picked up along the way rather than attending a specific course or educational program. Soft skills can include the following:
Soft skills are often overlooked, partly because they can be harder to quantify and measure but also due to historical overemphasis on technical expertise. When I attended business school many years ago, we spent half a semester on organizational behavior. That was the only course in the two-year program focused on soft skills– the rest focused on technical, “hard skill” topics such as finance and accounting. However, after graduation, once I worked in the corporate world for a year or two, I realized that the coursework that was most relevant to my job (working at a large tech company!) was the content we covered in organizational behavior. So much of how I could advance in my career directly tied back to the interpersonal and non-technical skills I had learned, acquired, or developed over the years.
Not every person you encounter at your workplace will have the same background, life experiences, education, or communication styles. Understanding the nuances of giving and receiving feedback, sharing criticism, or even how you word your emails can be critical in how you work with your team, are perceived by others, and how your work gets done.
Soft skills are essential for those who are in managerial or leadership roles. Many people end up getting promoted as a result of their technical prowess. Still, once they find themselves in a managerial role, they realize that the skills needed to support and grow a team are entirely different from those that got them to that position. On the other side of the equation, as a manager, it's also important to understand that people show up differently and that you might need to take different approaches for some individuals and situations. For example, an important soft skill can be reading body language. However, you also need to know that while making eye contact and reacting with certain visual cues can be read one way, if you are managing or working with an Autistic person, you might not receive those same body cues. Gaze aversion doesn’t always mean that the person is disengaged but could indicate that they're neurodivergent.
How do they show up in DEI work?
In my work as a DEI practitioner, I always rely on my soft skills. This work isn't just about sharing large amounts of information; it’s also about reading between the lines. I view my work as having a lot in common with storytelling. I supplement many of my trainings with personal stories or experiences to help participants understand how high-level concepts can play out on a very personal level. I sometimes start my sessions by stating that so much of DEI work can be reduced to communication and interpersonal dynamics between people. I am always looking for ways to notice what is going on for people. That could mean reading words that someone writes in a Zoom message, but it could also mean noticing body language (crossed arms, head shake, smiles, nods, frowns, and remembering that my interpretation of body language may not always align with how the other person is showing up) or noticing when someone does not share.
Much of our work– DEI practitioner or not– is connected to leaning into our discomfort and sitting with the gray areas, as I like to call it. The gray area is where soft skills shine, and hard skills aren't always helpful. If you’re looking to brush up on your soft skills, there are many fantastic resources, one of them being this great roundup from Session Lab. What other resources have you found to be helpful for you to develop and strengthen your soft skills?