This post is part 2 of a two-part series about Soft Skills. Here’s part 1.
In part 1 we discussed what soft skills are, why they are important both inside and outside the workplace, and theories of why they’re disappearing.
Because soft skills are hard to both define and quantify, it’s sometimes difficult to know how to effectively implement them in our lives. Following are six practices that you could adopt right now to begin demonstrating soft skills regardless of your environment or situation.
1 - Practice Putting Technology Away
Technology is ever-present in our lives which is a blessing and a curse. It’s made things much faster and more convenient but has also built an invisible divide between us. The everyday instances of communicating with one another without the interference of any technology are diminishing. As crazy as it sounds, these days it’s not unheard of for the most sensitive exchanges to happen electronically — starting arguments, sending condolences, ending relationships.
Even when speaking face-to-face, the smartphone is still always on the table. Ready to be grabbed the second there’s a lull in the conversation. Is this an unconscious reflex or a pending fear of boredom? When you instinctively reach for the phone, you are its slave. It beckons and you obey. What if you just stopped? Stopped. And became more mindful of what you were doing. Or what you should be doing.
Start with the conversations you should be having face-to-face. And I mean, looking at their face. Look them in the eye, read their body language, and listen intently. Extend the courtesy and respect of your full attention to your conversation partners.
Just this simple gesture which is so fundamental to proper communication is often lost these days. You see infractions of this all the time. The couple at dinner who is glued to their phones instead of each other or the small child who implores his parent, “Please put the phone away!”
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Have the presence of mind to immerse yourself in the world around you. Notice the weather, the artwork on the wall, and the sound of the ambient noise. Be brave enough to make small talk with strangers waiting for the elevator or just offer a smile and nod. These simple acts, no matter how small or brief, connects you with others and changes your mood and outlook for the better. Believe it. It feels good to connect with other human beings. We’ve forgotten that.
As a last point, don’t let technology be your intellectual crutch. Take the more challenging, slower, and more rewarding track when you can. That means don’t let Google be your encyclopedia or your problem solver. When you’re trying to remember the name of that song, don’t google it. Rack your brain instead. It’ll come to you (probably in the shower). Do you know how satisfying it is when you finally remember it...on your own? Let your own brain be your best database.
2 - Practice More Live Conversations
I know this is a tall order when IM and text messaging are just so convenient. But the siren song of convenience eventually makes you pay a steep price. After your snappy exchanges, you’re left wondering if you’ve really made any true connections with others. Relying predominantly on electronic media for personal communication introduces so many perils and missed opportunities like misread intent or under-the-surface emotions. From a screen, you can’t read the subtle clues about what they’re thinking nor the telltale emotion in someone’s voice.
I know there are times and places for quick communication exchanges, but it shouldn’t be used exclusively nor maybe even predominantly. Push yourself to have more live interactions. Pick up the phone, stop by the office, visit your neighbor. It’s refreshing because it’s rare. Often this is the best mode when an electronic exchange is getting tense or confusing. Clarity arrives a lot faster when it’s spoken aloud.
I remember when I was in the corporate world, nothing got me on the phone faster than a poorly toned email directed towards me. Perhaps rude, condescending, or passive aggressive. Like road rage, people tend to express aggression when they don’t have to own up to it. In most cases when I called the person directly, they instantly softened their stance. How convenient! The simple act of getting on the phone changed the dynamic almost immediately. Not only was the message between us more clear, they then knew just how I respond to disrespectful behavior.
3 - Practice Persistence and Perseverance
Challenges hit us all day long. Sometimes even before we get out of bed. Big or small each will require some creativity, resourcefulness, and sheer power to resolve. It’s a time to dig in and forge ahead. This is called grit.
Often in life, we are met with things that are unpleasant but necessary. They are unavoidable and need to be seen through. Like the job we hate or the pending visit to the in-laws. It’s about withstanding the present discomfort for future payoff.
From embracing delayed gratification in the short term or honoring a fundamental work ethic in the long term, sticking with temporary unpleasantness leads to a building of character and a realization of what you’re made of.
In time you can look back and say to yourself, “Look at what I did!”. Being persistent is like strengthening a muscle. Doing hard things again and again ironically allows you to do hard things more easily in the future. You build evidence of your capabilities and confidence in your own resourcefulness. In time, daunting tasks begins to dwarf in size.
4 - Practice Creative Problem Solving
Typically when persistence is required so is problem-solving. In this world, there is no lack of problems that need to be solved. But when they’re smack in the middle of your life, only you can muster up the resources to find the right solution. Using critical thinking skills such as assessing the situation and considering multiple options before making a decision to act will go a long way in moving you forward when things don’t go according to plan.
Strive first for self-sufficiency. It’s empowering to solve your own problems when you can. Depending on others regularly to bail you out may be convenient in the short term but will keep you incapable in the long term. Routinely getting a Get Out of Jail Free card keeps you needy and dependent.
Here’s an example. I’m not one to be very technically proficient. More often than I’d like to admit, I rely on my husband to get me out of technical jams. To bring to light my technical neediness, sometimes he plays this game with me called: What if I were dead? Like when I feel stuck and frustrated, I look at him with eyes imploring for some direction. He reminds me, “Sorry, I can’t help you. I’m dead. Now, what would you do?”
It’s a very motivating exercise.
At other times, part of effective problem solving is being resourceful with the people around you. Very little is ever accomplished alone. When it’s appropriate, employ the help of others who can help you look at the problem from different angles or offer specialized expertise.
The creative input of others usually offers compounded benefit. Remember problems much greater than yours have been solved before. Inventing the wheel, eradicating disease, creating wifi. There’s always a solution. Reach out to others to help find it.
5 - Practice Partnering with Others
Unless you live in a cave in the Himalayan mountains, eventually you will need to interact with people. People are a double-edged sword — entirely rewarding or unforgivingly frustrating. But like much in life, it’s all in what you make of it.
In the workplace, the relationships with colleagues and superiors can be more rewarding if you lean into them and value their participation in your work. The results of collaboration and teamwork can produce solid results while sharing the burden of the work and the glory of successful outcomes. All while learning a lot in the process. Your colleagues, associates, clients, neighbors, teammates will bring something unique to the table. Don’t leave empty handed.
Working and interacting with others also allows you to hone your self-development through demonstrating leadership. Have the maturity to recognize those around you as untapped resources brimming with potential.
Approach others with curiosity and pay attention to how you can make them shine. Often people retreat from collaboration because they feel insecure about how to they can add value. When you open up space for others to take the lead, you help facilitate growth for everyone. And such humility is the bedrock of being a respected leader.
6 - Practice Independent Thinking
From time to time, you will be all alone in holding an opinion no one else shares. It can be a very lonely place. But if you feel such conviction, there is value to owning it. For one, most people don’t have the courage to step out from the pack, let alone defend an unorthodox or untested position. While some may envy you and others call you crazy, most will probably respect your bravery.
The best this world has to offer would never have materialized if no one thought crazy and outlandish thoughts. The Wright Brothers were absolutely insane. Think of their proposal at the time! Now SpaceX is a household name. Remember tremendous reward is reserved for the independent thinker who believes in his ideas when no one else will and has the courage to take bold action.
As hopefully this series has demonstrated, soft skills are not soft at all. They are powerful and influential. They make your life easier and more rewarding. While they may be hard to identify or define, soft skills are most recognizable when you see them in action. Commit to making them be a part of who you are. Practice them often. This will lead to a personal distinction not matched by most of your peers.
Evaluate this list and identify which soft skills you’d like to incorporate into your daily habits. What’s your biggest opportunity? Think of all the areas of your life where you can use these skills.
If you have a like-minded friend, partner, or colleague challenge each other to put these skills into practice. Hold each other accountable and review your attempts at implementing them.
What is the biggest soft skill you could start using right away? I’d love to read about it in the comments below.