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The Hard Truth about Soft Skills

In business, we often hear HR-types refer to “soft skills.” Since “soft” has a light-weight, somewhat warm and fuzzy connotation, these abilities are often considered unimportant, or, at most, secondary to the “hard” skills—technical ability and factual knowledge—needed to get the job done. But professional trainer Peggy Klaus is here to tell us that it’s time to pay soft skills their props, because these are the core competencies that can make or break your career.

In her new book The Hard Truth About Soft Skills—Workplace Lessons Smart People Wish They’d Learned Sooner (Collins, 2008), Klaus presents 54 workplace lessons based on her years of training, coaching, and interviewing people at all levels. What she found is that people aren’t getting where they want to go in their careers. She writes, “Whether young or old, experienced or inexperienced, what struck me most about their stories of missed opportunities and derailed careers was this: Their problems rarely stemmed from a shortfall in technical or professional expertise, but rather from a shortcoming in the soft skills arena with their personal, social, communication and self-management behaviors.”

Research backs up Klaus’s findings:
• Research conducted with Fortune 500 CEOs by the Stanford Research Institute International and the Carnegie Melon Foundation, found that 75% of long-term job success depends on people skills, while only 25% on technical knowledge.
• A survey conducted by the Graduate Management Admission Council found that although MBA’s were strong in analytical aptitude, quantitative expertise, and information-gathering ability, they were sorely lacking in other critical areas that employers find equally attractive: strategic thinking, written and oral communication, leadership, and adaptability.

Klaus has organized her book into eight chapters, each covering an area in which soft skills play an especially significant role: career management, getting the job done, communication, handling critics, office politics, self-promotion, dealing with differences, and leadership. Here are some insights from the chapter on communication.

The Importance of Listening
To ensure that you really understand what the other person is saying:
  • Remain silent until the other person has finished. After she stops, ask for clarification with a question like, “Let me be sure that I understand what you’re saying.” Then paraphrase her words to see if you’ve gotten it right.

  • Be curious instead of defensive. Eagerly and excitedly, ask the other person to add more specifics so you can truly understand what she means.

  • Use both nonverbal and verbal cues to convey understanding and empathy, such as nodding your head in agreement saying things like, “I understand how you could feel that way,” or “Please, tell me more.”

General Listening Do’s and Don’ts:

Do:

  • Keep an open mind
  • Listen attentively for the total meaning
  • Tune in to the feelings of the speaker along with the facts
  • Be present and focused
  • Stay attentive to nonverbal cues
  • Ask the right questions at the right time
  • Pay attention to both content and delivery
  • Know what your hot buttons are and don’t let them rule your behavior
  • Listen with your heart along with your head

Don’t:

  • Make assumptions or prejudgments
  • Try to fill “airtime”
  • Interrupt with your thoughts or advice
  • Interrogate
  • Preach
  • Take the subject off into another direction
  • Multitask or let you mind wander

Klaus concludes: “Mastering soft skills takes persistence. It requires that you be mindful about yourself and your career. It demands that you look honestly and critically at your behavior, as well as genuinely being open to feedback—whether good or bad. Mastering these practical and tactical skills doesn’t magically happen overnight. It requires hard work, but the payoff can be tremendous…Whether you are an extroverted marketing person or an introverted engineer, mastering the soft skills will serve you well.”

If Klaus’s findings inspire you to spiff up your own soft skills, you can take an online automated self-assessment quiz at www.peggyklaus.com that allows you to respond to 24 items and receive instant feedback on which soft skills areas you need to improve, along with customized advice from Klaus.