Many consider soft skills to be worthless. In this article I’ll prove the opposite and will link you to useful resources to get started on soft skills.
You may be wondering why to bother with soft skills at all. Who cares if you talk a bit better than you do now, actual results matter the most, aren’t they? Improvements to your “hard” skills have an immediate and clear value. New books on your topic, meetups, and practice projects are all necessary to succeed.
Soft skills are an investment. You may not know that you need them before you have them. You may say that those skills are only for managers and salespeople, but we all are managers in a sense. We manage ourselves, and this can be harder than leading tens or even hundreds of people.
Like a Value Investor, you should seek best returns from your education. Short-term investments won’t make you as good as Warren Buffet.
Decision fatigue and priorities
Let us digress a bit and look at Bob. Bob works as a software engineer. He loves to write code. One morning he gets early to the office to get some work done. Line by line, the code starts flowing under his fingers. Time passes fast. It was already 11:30 AM when notifications started to bombard Bob as a hungry flock of pigeons. He opened up an email app. 7 new messages and 31 unread emails from distant past. Bob was halfway through the third letter when he noticed that his beloved colleagues were starting to form a long line to have a cup of coffee with him. So Bob got to get some caffeine to get through this day. A half an hour later, Bob gets depressed at a meeting. Turns out the task he had worked on over gloomy late evenings and early mornings is not needed anymore. Even worse, this information was in his inbox, he hadn’t got through this letter yet.
The problem happened because Bob was very reactive to noisy events that fill his day. Distractions caused decision fatigue that snowballed over several days. Bob did not plan day and did not focus on tasks he needed to finish. Of course, Bob’s team could be more effective at getting him up to date, but this would solve the issue only in part. To solve it in whole, Bob needs to become the master of his time.
When you are passionate about your work, it is hard to eat your frogs first. Take reading email: it is tempting to postpone an uneasy task for a few minutes. Once you decide to postpone, it is like a stairway. Unread emails will pile up and happily deliver you more stress as the problem gets bigger and bigger. Over the long term, postponing things will force you to give them much more attention later. Eat your frogs first, or they will become the main dish of your diet.
Decision fatigue is another very important concept that will help you to be more productive. Too many unnecessary decisions throughout the day can drain our decision ability. Each notification takes a teaspoon from our decision pool. Same goes for unimportant matters we attend to. Three things can help to make decisions in a more efficient way: setting goals, planning and batching.
Set goals for the day at every morning. Plan ahead to limit the number of unnecessary decisions you make. Have a list of todos for your personal and professional goals. You can postpone unimportant distractions if you know your goal in advance.
Bathing small tasks together is another great tool to make you more efficient. Take email: 99% of letters we receive do not need instant attention. Try disabling all email notifications. Check email once a day at a fixed time interval, it will help you to focus on important activities. Be committed to checking your email when you decide to do it. Do not allow any distractions to sink in. It is a fact that people need considerable amounts of time to get into a focused mode. Our attention works best when we use it like a sprinter, rather than an absent-minded stroller.
To sell or not to sell?
Jennifer, a freelance artist struggles to meet ends. She works hard and practices daily to hone her skills. Many professionals label her work as impressive. Still, she knows that there is no limit to perfection. High competition forces her to lower the prices in order to win clients. And her clients were never so demanding as they are now. Hard and uncreative work piles up on Jennifer as a bleak cloud in a stormy sky.
Many talented professionals like Jennifer feel underpaid. They are trying to find a way to make reasonable compensation for their skills. They are working hard and fail in the end. One of the most frequent problems is pricing. Every professional provides value to the business they work for. Still, they put price tags on hours instead of value. You can justify a good price and still be ahead of the competition. Art and science of setting and justifying the price is called sales. How to find and name real value in your work and how to describe its appeal to the customer? The answer lies in sales skills. You can train yourself sails like any other skill.
Best freelancers sell valuable business assets, not hours. They form and sell their work in form of a product. If you are a freelancer, reading one or two sales books will do you a favor. If you are not, still do this, because you ‘ll benefit from these skills on a daily basis nonetheless. Sometimes our work doesn’t get the traction it deserves. Knowledge in sales will help to present your results in the most profitable way. Looking for a book to start with? The Little Red Book of Selling would serve as an easy to understand and actionable guide.
Another important aspect is the ability to empathize and listen. Many of us lack empathy. Empathy can be defined as an ability to recognize other’s opinions and emotions without being overwhelmed and fatigued. As it is with music or paining, you can train to feel others. It is not about some kind of innate talent that allows us to understand others feelings. You must be devoted to be empathetic.
Mathew got really tired. The rain was falling outdoors at the tech store, so he sat down to catch a breath. Umbrellas were absent from Mathew only on rainy days. “Murphy’s law at its beauty”, he thought. Gadgets were an obsession of Mathew’s, but he hadn’t sold any in the last month. He knew exactly what you need after a couple minutes of small talk. Somehow, harmless conversations had converted to heated discussions that left Mathew with empty hands time and again.
Relating to feelings of other’s people would helped Mathew to close the deals. One does not sell a drill, but memories in a form of a photo on a wall. Most of the people do not look for outstanding technical features. They seek solutions their problems. Want to know more about empathy? Look into EQ Applied.
Another handy skill that could have helped is active listening. It is counterintuitive, but the main part of the conversation is listening. The main point is to create a good atmosphere for the other person to talk. Extract the key points and resist the urge to start talking about yourself. ]It can be hard, but it will allow you to see the forest through the trees. If you want to master active listening, read Never Split the Difference by Chris Voss. This is a tremendous book about negotiations. It contains a lot of techniques that will boost your active listening skills.
A monument of yourself
Try to focus on what you actually do in your daily life to find the skills you lack. Good chances that you need to talk or write a lot to deliver results. Or do you have a lot of information to comprehend and memorize when reading a book? How much value do you extract at some event if you talk to no people and ask no questions? And your practice projects, do they need at least a bit of planning and organization to finish? How many times did you feel overwhelmed by the number of tasks you need to do in a single day? More so, how many of us negotiate a lot with our spouses?
Finding the least developed areas of yourself and working on them is the golden key for progress. The power law tells us that 80% of results come from 20% of work. This line of thought applies to the learning process, and to almost everything in nature. It is likely that you have practiced in your main area of expertise for a long time. Learning a single topic for long periods of time provides diminishing returns. You can get a lot of progress in something entirely new if you will devote a fraction of your time to it. If soft skills are not an area that you actively learn about you’ll benefit a lot from reading a book or two.
New tools that boost your hard skills emerge and pass by at unbelievable speeds, leaving you to wonder if there ever be a time of calm. The knowledge you get does not feel constant. It withers, passes away and gets replaced. For programmers, it may be new frameworks. For artists, it can be new complicated software that will take time to learn.
But some things can stick over a lifetime. Fundamental sciences are must for every engineer. Yes, discrete math and computer science build a basis for a computer scientist. Composition and sketching do the same for artists. But soft skills are one thing that they all can equally benefit from over a lifetime.
No matter who you are, when you are and where you are, all work ever done was done for humans, by humans. Developing communication and personal efficiency skills is important for anyone. Because, well, we communicate a lot when we try to get something done.
Soft skills are the monument you build for yourself. It is not going anywhere. It is an investment you make. If you will hold at it, you will receive nice dividends.
Choose some areas you feel you lack or you are most interested in and start working on them. Give it some time and results will tell for themselves.