Thirty years ago when I was in school at the University of Virginia, everyone seemed to believe that hard skills were most important. Students had to focus on mastering the specific skills required for their particular profession. But today people change not just jobs, but professions — many times over — during their career. As a result, hard skills have been dethroned from their place of prominence. Now soft skills reign supreme.

Don’t misunderstand me: Hard skills are still important. People must know what they’re talking about as a practitioner in their field. But becoming proficient in the soft skills of people relations will serve you well as you change professions during your career.

Here are three soft skills that are important for you to master, regardless of the profession you choose.

1. Reading people

Understanding how to read others is paramount in your career. Understanding not just what others say — but also what they mean — is important no matter where you work. Having the emotional intelligence to understand what someone is feeling is crucial, and so is knowing how to respond to those feelings.

Do you understand human emotions enough to identify which potential emotion(s) someone else is emoting? Do you understand your own emotions to know what they look like in others? Once you discern what team members are feeling, do you know how to appropriately respond to their emotional state in order to help them and move the team forward?

I have a daughter who can read people extremely well. She will know what people are feeling and how to respond to them in the moment. As a result she will be able to defuse an intense situation between people before it explodes.

To have the most success — whatever your professional endeavor — it is key to have a solid understanding of how to read other people and be able to respond appropriately to them.

2. Listening to others

If there is one skill today that is sorely lacking today, it is listening. People don’t want to have to listen to others. They assume they know what others will say, so they tune them out.

Here’s an exercise you can try at home or the workplace to gauge your willingness to listen to others: Listen to someone from whom you don’t think you can learn anything. Ask probing questions to understand why they think the way they think. Don’t be adversarial or judgmental. Just ask questions simply to understand.

When you ask questions of someone and then actively listen to what they have to say, you will do more than learn what they think. Through your active listening, they will think you are a brilliant conversationalist. I once heard a story about a woman who had the opportunity to have dinner on two different occasions with two male former British prime ministers. After dinner with the first prime minister, she thought he must be the cleverest person in all England. After dinner with the second, she thought she must be the cleverest person in all England. People like to hear themselves talk. So if you give them the platform to do so, you will improve their perception of you.

3. Building relationships

It is important to recognize that humans are relational beings and keep focused on developing relationships at all times in your career.

Do you focus on developing relationships with people who you think you can benefit from at that time? Or do you build relationships with others regardless of how you might benefit?

You never know who you will run across in life. Someone you may know socially may become very important to you down the road professionally. At one point in my life I worked as a volunteer in a community activity and got to know the others on the team. When I started my consultancy, I had not had any contact with anyone on that team for more than a decade. Then out of the blue, one of the team leaders contacted me when he saw I was speaking at a national conference in the industry he was moving into. As a result, that relationship developed into a consulting arrangement which ultimately opened the door to several other consulting opportunities.

You never really know how life will turn out. As a result, it is important for you to hone your soft skills to become the person you feel called to be — regardless of the profession you choose.

Robert McFarland is the author of the bestsellers, Dear Boss: What Your Employees Wish You Knew and Dear Employee: What Your Boss Wishes You Knew. Robert is also President of Transformational Impact LLC, a leadership development consultancy helping companies improve their employee cultures to make the companies healthier, more productive, and more profitable.

(2) comments


This is a brilliant piece Robert, amd absolutely spot on. Thanks for writing it.

Robert McFarland

Thanks for your kind words. I appreciate that greatly.

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