All Your Questions About Soft Skills and Work—Answered! was originally published on The Muse, a great place to research companies and careers. Click here to search for great jobs and companies near you.
You should be paying attention, because those notes tell you which soft skills are crucial to the role you’re applying for. And they’re often just as important as hard skills when it comes to your job search—and overall career success.
“Soft skills are intangible attributes related to how you work,” says Muse career coach Jennifer Smith, founder of Flourish Careers. Soft skills are the traits and qualities you possess that dictate how you’ll engage with others—also known as interpersonal skills—and how you’ll perform in the workplace. For example, one big category of soft skills is communication skills, which help you to interact with your coworkers, clients, and anyone else you come across in your job. Strong communication skills will mean fewer misunderstandings, clearer indications of progress toward goals, and a more cohesive work environment, among other benefits.
While hard skills are often based on specific knowledge, “soft skills focus more on your actual behaviors or habits in work situations,” says Muse career coach Al Dea. Are you always coming up with outside-the-box solutions and proposals? Can you give a presentation that makes everyone in the room sit up and pay attention? Do you always step in to help when someone on your team needs it? These are demonstrations of your soft skills—creativity, public speaking, and teamwork, respectively.
Soft skills are also more subjective than hard skills. Saying that you know how to prepare someone’s taxes or upload content using WordPress is fairly straightforward: Did the taxes get filed correctly? Is the content uploaded? Then you have those skills. But saying that you’re a good leader isn’t as clear-cut. What is a good leader? That depends entirely on who’s answering the question and can be difficult to explain, show the results of, or learn if you’re not inherently skilled at it.
Think about your favorite and most admired coworkers, managers, and leaders. Why did you choose these people? Was it because they were great at doing data analysis? Maybe, but it’s unlikely that mastery of a hard skill is the only reason. It’s more likely you enjoyed interacting with this person and appreciated how they did their jobs.
Was that one colleague always so excited to dive into a new project that they motivated others on the team? Did they always speak up at meetings to point out when someone else was being spoken over? Was that favorite boss always understanding of people’s lives outside of work? “The way you get work done and interact with others is a critical component within the workplace,” Smith says, so soft skills are crucial to your success and reputation, no matter what your role or seniority level.
Now think about a company you were part of or a team you were on that really got things done in a way that felt rewarding. Why was that? Sure, the individuals on the team probably had the hard skills to complete their work tasks, but that’s just the “what.” The “how” comes from soft skills. Maybe innovation and creativity flourished. Maybe communication was very open and direct without ever being harsh. Maybe the environment was very collaborative and individuals were never blamed for failures. Maybe the team had a great rapport. Soft skills make these things possible.
Soft skills are also more transferable and timeless than hard skills. “Many soft skills will continue to be needed for the foreseeable future even as the industry and market evolve,” Dea says. A lot of common tech tools, like those we use for social media or Search Engine Optimization, didn’t even exist until recently—and neither did the hard skills that go with them, Dea says. And technologies will continue to evolve, meaning that the hard skills you need now might not be as important in five or 10 years. Adobe Flash–based content used to be everywhere on the internet, for instance, but now it’s a rarity—and a sign of an outdated site—so knowing how to create it isn’t nearly as attractive a skill as it once was. But working hard and being dependable are unlikely to ever go out of style.
Because they’re not based on specific knowledge like hard skills, soft skills are often considered more difficult to learn or strengthen. And there’s a bit of truth to that, but that doesn’t mean you can’t develop your soft skills.
The first thing to do is establish where your soft skills stand now. Our experts suggest the following methods:
- Look at past feedback from performance reviews and other sources and/or ask for current feedback: Are there any common themes, either positive or negative?
- Take some time to look at your past and current work responsibilities and try to identify which soft skills have helped you succeed in your job and which ones would have helped that you could develop.
- Take a skills assessment or quiz (like this, this, and this).
Identify one or two areas you want to focus on first. Then, just like anything else, soft skills can be improved through practice. Smith recommends putting yourself in situations where you’ll have to stretch your soft skills, but start small. For example, do you struggle with public speaking? Maybe you can give a short presentation to your immediate team at an upcoming meeting. Are your leadership skills lacking? Volunteer to take point on a simple project. And whenever possible during your practice, ask for feedback.
You might also consider taking a class. While they’re less common than classes on how to use a flashy new program, you can still find courses online that will help you with your interpersonal and other skills.
And don’t forget that you can turn to people in your network, too. “Find a mentor who is good at what you’re trying to improve and ask them to coach you,” Smith suggests. Or, if you have a coworker who’s great at the soft skill you’re trying to work on, you might observe and evaluate what they do and think about how you can apply these strategies yourself, Dea says.
When you’re looking for a job, employers want to know not only what you can do, but how you’ll do it and what you’ll be like as a coworker. How can you tell which soft skills matter most for a particular job? “Review the job description!” Smith says. Companies aren’t asking for a self-starter with great attention to detail for no reason. You can also “take a look at LinkedIn profiles for people who work at the company and see what skills they have,” Smith says. Or you can talk to people who already work in a position or at a company you’re interested in and ask them which soft skills are most vital to success. You can highlight them:
On Your Resume
While many job seekers think of their resume as the prime space to show off their hard skills, you should also make sure your soft skills shine. You might include your most important soft skills in a resume summary. You might even list the soft skills mentioned in or directly related to the job description in your skills section, Smith says, though Dea suggests only going this route if you have extra space.
But remember that anyone can say that they have strong leadership skills or problem-solving abilities. You have to show prospective employers how you’ve used your soft skills and what you’ve achieved. This means working your soft skills into your bullet points. You might devote bullet points to only highlighting particular soft skills. For example, if you wanted to talk about your leadership skills, Smith suggests something like:
- Assumed leadership role for sales team with the lowest worker satisfaction survey results in the company. Motivated and engaged employees by encouraging feedback, holding a variety of team-building events, and celebrating top performers at weekly meetings, increasing positive sentiment by 34% in one year.
Or you can combine your soft and hard skills into one bullet point. For example:
- Collaborated with a team of 3 to conduct market research through one-on-one meetings with customers about their needs and concerns. Wrote clear and concise questions used by entire team and assigned tasks and tracked progress in Asana. Presented findings visualized with Tableau and made recommendations to senior staff.
For each of your resume bullets (which should be quantified and achievement-oriented) think, “Which of my soft skills helped me to accomplish this?” You might also choose action verbs (collaborated, led, presented, motivated) that speak to the appropriate soft skills, as in the examples above.
In Your Cover Letter
Cover letters are a great place to expand on your soft skills. Tell a story that explicitly mentions your experience with the soft skills in the job description to highlight your fit for the role, Smith says. So if a job description calls for someone with “excellent organizational skills” and you wanted to emphasize yours, you could say:
“When I started my current job as office manager for BubbleTech, supplies were stashed wherever there was room—I found Post-its in the kitchen and snacks in a cabinet over the printer! So I put my organizational skills to work, inventorying and rearranging all the supplies. I also sent around a Google Sheet that told everyone where they could find each item. In addition to checking the inventory weekly, I made sure my colleagues could note on that same Google Sheet when something was running low and I’d know to order more. As a result, BubbleTech stopped wasting money on extra supplies and never again found themselves completely out of any item when it was needed.”
In a Job Interview
You can and should mention examples of how you’ve used your soft skills in your answers to interview questions. Think about which of your soft skills you want to emphasize before your interview, and come prepared with stories that show those skills in action. You can structure your answers using the STAR method to ensure that you include not only how you used your skills, but also what results they had.
Your behavior before, during, and after an interview will also show employers some of your soft skills firsthand, Smith says. For example, every email you send and each phone call, video meeting, and in-person interaction you have with someone at a company you’re interviewing with says something about your communication skills, Dea says. Arriving on time for an interview is a given, but speaks to your dependability and time management skills. Being prepared with strong, inquisitive questions about the role will show the hiring manager how curious and proactive you are, and asking your interviewer questions about themselves and responding earnestly to their answers will show your empathy and active listening skills.
Here are some of the most important types of soft skills and some of the individual skills that fall under each category. This list isn’t exhaustive, but you can use it to start thinking about which soft skills you have and which you’d like to develop further.
“Every job involves some types of communication,” Dea says. Having the ability to communicate effectively is vital for any role and can affect a number of experiences in the workplace—from how well you convey your expectations and how well you understand others’ expectations to whether or not you land that big account.
- Active Listening
- Giving Clear Feedback
- Nonverbal Communication/Reading Body Language
- Public Speaking
- Verbal Communication
- Written Communication
Don’t skip this section just because you aren’t a manager or senior-level employee. “You don’t need to be a leader to demonstrate leadership!” Dea says. Employees at any level can still demonstrate their leadership skills on projects and within their teams.
- Conflict Management/Resolution
- Giving and Accepting Feedback
- Motivating Others
- Project Management
- Relationship Building
- Talent Management
A big part of any job is solving problems, and not every problem has a clear-cut answer, Dea says. The ability to figure out how to approach new or particularly difficult problems is a key soft skill.
- Analytical Thinking
- Critical Thinking
- Risk Management
Collaboration and Teamwork Skills
You need to know how to work with others toward a shared goal or objective. This can be as small as making sure a presentation gets done for a team meeting or as big as helping your company hit its goals for the quarter or year. These skills speak to your ability to effectively work as part of a team.
- Emotional Intelligence
- Disability Awareness
- Diversity Awareness
- Intercultural Competence
- Motivating Others
- Respect for Differences
- Trust and Trustworthiness
Work Ethic/Work Style
These soft skills relate to your particular approach to work. You’ll see that some of these traits and abilities are opposites of each other. That’s because there’s no one correct work style, and some work habits and personal qualities are better suited to different companies and work environments.
- Ability to Work Well Under Pressure
- Attention to Detail
- Awareness of the Big Picture
- Creative Thinking
- Fast Learner
- Hard Worker
- Management of Multiple Deadlines/Projects
- Meeting Tight Deadlines
- Team Player
- Time Management