There’s more than a little fuzziness around the concept of “soft skills.” “Hard skills” are thought of as those technical abilities which often lend their name to an entire profession: designing, architecture, repairing, nursing, and so on. These are easy to identify because there’s a specific body of knowledge around each, and they’re the kind of things that our schools teach.
In contrast, soft skills are harder to define because they’re fuzzy, harder to describe, situation dependent, and often avoided by schools. So why bother?
Because these are exactly the skills which are most portable during your career. I started out as a programmer, then got promoted to manager. Every time I moved to a new project I had to learn new technologies, but the core principles of how to work with my team members remained the same. Although my technical abilities as a programmer are now obsolete by decades, I continue to use core people-related skills that I learned way back when. Some from kindergarten.
You’ll find lists of “soft skills” at various levels of detail. They’re often called “people skills” or “interpersonal skills.” Below that you’ll see things like negotiating, leading, managing, motivating, engaging, conversing, communicating, teaching, listening, and so on. All very valuable, and worth developing no matter what career you might have.
I’ll offer an additional way to figure out some soft skills which might be important to you: Imagine that you’ve just had a conversation with a couple of people, which has now drawn to a close. You depart. One person says to the other, “That was useful; he (she) was quite ________.”
What words would you prefer to see in that blank? competent? inspiring? articulate? motivating? friendly? smart? generous? spiritual?
Pick two or three words that you would strive for, that you would most like to see used in the context of how you affect others. Sure, you might not feel that you live up to those words today – great. But if you can identify some ideals for how you will affect those around you, you’ll have a lot more clarity on the soft skills you’d like to develop. That’s a lot more useful than having a general list of 20 attributes that try to describe the full breadth of human interaction.