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What are soft skills?

What are soft skills? If you run in L&D or HR circles, you have probably heard this term - but what exactly does it mean?

Soft skills (the opposite of “hard skills”) is a term that specifically refers to skills that tend to be innate within people - such as communication, empathy, or creative thinking - as opposed to hard skills, which tend to be taught; for example, SEO, web development, accountancy or fluency in a foreign language.

In other words, soft skills are characterised by their interpersonal nature - and are so called because they are hard to quantify and objectively measure (when compared to hard skills, which are much more demonstrable on the whole.) Despite the fact that a lot of soft skills are usually innate, they can be developed and refined over time.

This isn’t to say that soft skills are less important - on the contrary, despite being harder to quantify, soft skills are now widely recognised as crucial in the workplace.

Soft skills example

Imagine “Company X” is hiring a new Marketing Manager, “Mark.” During the hiring process, Company X can see that Mark has experience managing a small team, creating PR, leading social media campaigns and using email marketing software. These hard skills all go towards making them an attractive candidate - but on top of this, Mark is a great communicator and a creative thinker. These latter two skills, the soft skills, are a large part of why Company X ends up hiring Mark.

Soft skills FAQ’s

What are basic soft skills?

Soft skills look different for everyone, so there are not, strictly speaking, “basic” soft skills. However, a selection of soft skills that employers might find desirable could include the following:

Communication: The ability to clearly, politely and concisely communicate your needs, and to facilitate communication between others.

Teamwork: The ability to work well as part of a team, and collaborate with others in pursuit of a common goal. Teamwork is about valuing everyone’s perspective and working together cohesively.

Problem-solving: Problem-solving denotes the systematic approach of identifying, analysing and resolving challenges that hinder progress. Good problem-solvers will be able to break complex issues down into smaller, more manageable parts and think critically about various solutions.

Time management: Good time management refers to the skill of effectively organising your tasks, and prioritising them within a given timeframe in order to meet deadlines.

Is empathy a soft skill?

Empathy is absolutely a soft skill. Despite the fact that the word “empathy” brings to mind personal relationships, its importance within the workplace cannot be overstated. Your ability to relate to, understand, and empathise with your colleagues is invaluable when it comes to being an effective and harmonious team.

What soft skills do employers look for?

This is largely dependent on the employer and industry in question. However, according to a recent survey conducted by Gartner, the following were the most in-demand soft skills of 2023:

1. Analytical thinking

2. Creative thinking

3. Resilience, flexibility and agility

4. Motivation and self-awareness

5. Curiosity and lifelong learning

6. Dependability and attention to detail

7. Empathy and active listening

8. Leadership and social influence

How to improve soft skills?

There is a misunderstanding about soft skills that they can’t be “taught” or improved upon -  but this simply isn’t true. You can absolutely develop your soft skills over time. The question is, how?

You can start with self-assessment. Assess your existing skills and identify areas for improvement. Next, you can practise soft skills by specifically seeking out opportunities or projects that utilise them. This will help you hone the skills, and gain valuable feedback from your peers. Don’t be afraid to get outside of your comfort zone: Actively testing soft skills in areas in which you’re unfamiliar will allow you to stretch these dormant muscles and become a more well-rounded worker.

Want to learn more? Check out our latest blog on soft skills.

For more information on how to develop soft skills, read our blog The Top 5 Skills and How to Develop Them.

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