Many jobs require you to have some specific knowledge, skills or qualifications, but to succeed in any workplace you need to have soft skills. But what are soft skills? Soft skills are the skills you need to interact well with other people such, as assertiveness, influencing and negotiation. They are also personal skills which influence how you think, how you feel and how you organize your life. These include resilience and adaptability for when things get tough, and creativity and decisiveness to help you be more effective. Acquiring soft skills will make you a more employable person, better able to achieve your personal goals

Despite being critical for achieving your goals in life, soft skills are not usually taught at school as a subject. People often pick up soft skills as they go through life and learn from their mistakes and misjudgements along the way. However, soft skills can be taught and improved with practice, just like academic subjects.

Some of the most important soft skills include:

  • Communication
  • Problem-solving
  • Time management
  • Leadership

We’ll look at each of these four core skills to see how they can help you climb up the career ladder. With each, we’ll provide advice on how you can boost your ability.

1. Communication

Communication is crucial to success. Communicating effectively is about a lot more than our choice of words. Other factors, such as tone of voice and body language, are at least as important if we want people to listen to us and respond positively to what we have to say.

Some people are naturally confident, but others can feel awkward, especially in difficult situations – meeting new people for example, or addressing large groups or delivering a message that they feel is important but may not be what people want to hear. Although these can be difficult challenges, here are some ideas which can help. You can start by observing these behaviours in people who you admire because they seem to do these things well – you can then practise the same techniques for yourself, perhaps beginning in role-plays, until you become confident enough to apply these techniques to difficult situations in your own life:

  • Stay positive. People will feel more comfortable and open up when they’re talking to someone who is responding positively. So even if you are delivering a difficult message, try to emphasize the positive points.
  • Respond to body language. The way that someone stands or sits can tell you a lot about how they are feeling. Make sure you respond to the signals you are getting. If they seem hostile, it may be best not to overemphasise or repeat difficult parts of your message. If they look bored or disengaged, you need to do more to hold their attention. If they are making regular eye contact and responding positively to what you are saying, you know you are getting your message across.
  • Listen actively. Just because body language and tone are key factors, it doesn’t mean that the content of what’s being said can be ignored. This is especially true in interviews or other situations where you will be expected to respond thoughtfully to what is being said. Make sure you focus your attention fully on the speaker and show them you are listening by nodding, smiling and interjecting where appropriate.

Communication is arguably the most important soft skill, as it influences our daily interactions with everyone we meet. It’s key to develop this ability as much as possible. Check out our Making an Impact course if you want to improve your communication skills.

2. Problem solving

Problem-solving skills are associated with creativity, but that does not mean they are limited to purely ‘creative’ roles in the workplace. The ability to find ways around challenging hurdles is important in many roles.

This is a difficult skill to learn in traditional ways, but by challenging yourself to look for better ways to do things in your daily life you can gain experience and confidence. Sometimes a problem can seem daunting – there are just so many things to worry about. Someone aiming to develop their problem-solving skills can start by breaking a process down into smaller steps:

  • Step 1: Identify – To get started, you need to have a clear understanding of just what the problem is. Identify the key areas that need addressing.
  • Step 2: Structure – This step involves fact-finding. Work out what the root cause of the problem is, as well as any barriers to the most obvious solutions.
  • Step 3: Look for solutions – Think about what you’ve learned in the first two steps and see if there are any routine solutions to problems of this nature. If you can’t think of any, use logic to try and run through potential solutions in your head.
  • Step 4: Make a plan – Once you’ve reached the stage where you think you’ve got the best solution, make a plan and present it to others. Don’t worry if the plan is not perfect – by breaking the problem down and presenting it clearly to others they may be able to contribute to an even better solution.

While creativity is useful for this particular soft skill, it isn’t the be-all and end-all. Logic will also help you tackle a problem help you find a solution.

3. Time management

Do you feel like there’s never enough time in the day? Sometimes it feels as if we’re in a never-ending battle to get everything done, with impossible deadlines. One way to ease this problem is to boost your time management abilities as much as possible.

This is crucial when it comes to things like university assignments or important tasks in your day-to-day work. Aim to:

  • Focus on one task. While it might feel like multi-tasking helps get more done, it can actually make each individual task you’re doing take a lot longer, as time is lost when you shift your attention from one task to another. Focus your attention on one thing and get this done before moving onto something else. Once you are working on a task don’t allow yourself to be distracted by phone calls, e-mails or social media.
  • Create a list. Use it to create an order in which you need to get things done. Then stick to it, unless your priorities really have changed. Knowing what needs to be done, and when, will go a long way to helping you plot out how you’re going to tackle the work. If the list covers tasks that will take more than a few hours, build in time for relaxation – maybe five minutes to stretch and get some fresh air.
  • Use free time if you must. Be realistic. Your downtime can be used for work, but it’s important to have a balanced life. Save some time for your social life, to eat and, most importantly to sleep. You will be more productive in the long run if you stay healthy. Also, remember that it is hard to get to sleep if your head is buzzing with ideas – so build in some time to wind down at the end of the day.
  • Set rewards. If you give yourself rewards for achieving something, you’ll be more motivated. It’s important not to lie to yourself, however. Make sure you only reward yourself when you’ve earned it.

If you still find time management really difficult, there are plenty of apps to help you. Lifehack lists out some useful ones.

With better time management, you’ll find tasks will get done more quickly and to a higher standard. You’ll have more time to relax and you will feel better too!

4. Leadership

The ability to lead people is integral to progression through a company’s ranks. While some people might doubt their ability to take control of a group of people, the reality is that everyone has some level of leadership capability and this, too, can be developed with practice.

There are many misconceptions about leadership, and below we examine these. Take on board this advice to improve your leadership skills:

  • Leadership is not one skill it’s a set of many skills and qualities. Identify which skills you need to improve, work on them and you will be developing your leadership capabilities. For example, if you are a good communicator one-on-one or in small groups, but public speaking terrifies you, work on your presentation skills. You will find that being able to communicate to large groups will open up leadership opportunities and help you command respect.
  • Leadership doesn’t mean bossing people around and barking orders. A good leader listens to those around them, learns from what they have to say and makes the most of any special skills they may have. He or she then acts according to what he or she believes is best for the group and their goals.
  • Being the boss at work isn’t the only way to be a leader. There are leadership opportunities everywhere you look. You will find opportunities in your family, your friendship group and your community. Do you take part in a group activity like a sports club or community interest group? Groups like these are always in need of people who are willing to put themselves forward. As with all soft skills, practice is key, so seek out opportunities to put yourself forward by volunteering, organising, mentoring or listening to someone who needs help.

So, what are soft skills? In short, they are a whole range of abilities that will help you to prosper in life. Soft skills can be developed throughout your life. Start by following the advice we have given, and you will soon discover how useful these skills can be. Taking an online course could also be a great way to develop these skills, so check out our courses.