Soft Skills: The Neglected Keys to Success

Posted by Sam on July 21, 2016

Careers | Get In The Know | The Vari Reel

Person drawing stick figures on an iPad illustrating soft skills.
Image courtesy of Luigi Mengato on Flickr.

It’s difficult to speak for all people, and very rarely is it OK to do so, but there are certain desires I think everyone subconsciously pursues. We all want people to listen to us, to heed our advice and to place their trust in us. We want to be seen as smart and knowledgeable by those around us, whether we ourselves believe it or not.

Unfortunately, “get smart” and “feel confident” aren’t really things you can just throw on a New Year’s resolution list. Because there are different kinds of “smarts,” some that go well beyond book learning (the so-called soft skills), gaining genuine confidence can take most of us a lifetime. There are, however, certain ways to help you develop the appearance. By this I am not suggesting that you should strive to merely seem to be something or someone you are not for the sake of it. What I am suggesting, however, is that creating the appearance of confidence, for example, can actually lead to true confidence in the end. Confused? Let’s back up a bit, then, and look at hard and soft skills separately.

We all understand hard skills: they are the specific, often very practical skills (think of straightforward writing or computer use, for example) that help us get things done. While hard skills clearly serve a vital purpose in building our intelligence and getting us through life, what about the other side of the spectrum ­— what about soft skills?

Let me illustrate the effectiveness of soft skills with an example. Imagine a job interview for a retail position, a setting most of us have probably experienced. On paper, in terms of education and work experience, the two applicants look similar. Applicant number 1 enters the office with a blank expression, weakly shakes the interviewer’s hand and then quickly sits down in the designated chair. The applicant then stumbles through the remainder of the interview, avoiding eye contact and interrupting his or her responses with constant “likes” or “ums”.

Applicant number 2 takes a different tack. This applicant confidently walks into the interview, head held high, firmly shakes the hand of the interviewer, and then proceeds to answer all questions, even when unsure, while maintaining genuine eye contact. The applicant speaks coherently with little to no speech crutches and asks follow-up questions at the interview’s conclusion.

A man in a York sweater sitting at a conference table across from a woman.
Student leader, Sayjon Ariyarathnam.

Out of these two applicants, who do you think got the job?  I think we can agree that it would most definitely have been the second one. Why? Because candidate number 2 appeared much more collected, polite, and focused on the task at hand.

Confidence, courteousness, attentiveness — these are all examples of soft skills (here’s a more extensive list). An easy way to think of soft skills is as personal attributes that would allow for successful relationships with those around you. Different from their more clearly defined hard-skill counterparts, soft skills consist of more socially nuanced qualities and aren’t necessarily “learned” in the more technical sense (although they certainly can be practiced and refined).

That soft skills aren’t learned in the traditional sense, meaning they don’t require an extensive theoretical understanding to perform, can actually work to your benefit. It’s hard to fake an understanding of thermodynamics, but it’s relatively easy to straighten up your posture, remind yourself to maintain eye contact with someone and/or to incorporate a “please” and “thank you” when appropriate.


Illustration of a boy with bad posture and a boy with good posture.

At the beginning of my first year, I dedicated a significant amount of effort to forcing myself to look people in the eye when speaking and listening to them, as well as eliminating the words “like” and “um” from my vocabulary as best as possible. As uncomfortable as it was at first (and I mean very uncomfortable), I remember a distinct moment speaking to a group member in one of my classes. As I was explaining something to her, I remember suddenly having the thought, “Wow, I am genuinely holding this person’s attention right now!” It was almost unsettling. Of course she could have just been forcing herself to appear attentive much as I was, but I prefer to think of her as being completely enthralled by what I was saying at the time.

Of course, as the list above makes clear, there are many more soft skills than just confidence-inducing eye contact and clear speech, but these are the ones that have directly impacted me.

Enough of such success cases in your own life and you begin to actually embody the confidence you are superficially presenting to those around you. It’s similar to that whole “smile more and you’ll eventually become happier” thing you always hear. Four years later and I can say that my self-confidence has improved, I am able to speak much more coherently, and I have no issue whatsoever maintaining eye contact with people. (I am now actually a champion at staring contests.) I would also like to believe this increase in confidence has served me well in my schoolwork, professional development and personal relationships.

I am by no means suggesting that practicing soft skills, however you choose to practice them, will be an easy process — it is not. You may be naturally shy or find yourself in circumstances that undercut your sense of self or place. But I do suggest that everyone can benefit from at least trying.

So don’t neglect the development of soft skills. They can contribute positively to any aspect of your life, whether it be school, work, relationships or anything in between, and they take all but awareness and practice to incorporate into your life. Think you’d like some help? The Career Centre offers some workshops on making good first impressions, Learning Skills Services can help you improve your time or stress management and the Centre for Human Rights offers a Respect, Equity, Diversity & Inclusion (REDI) training program that also deals with issues of conflict resolution.


Sam recently graduated with an Honours BA in Communications.

See other posts by Sam

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    Tomorrow I have to do a speech about my thesis and your post is really helpful. THANKS
    regards from Chile 🙂

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    Great post Sam. Well written and easy to read while delivering an important insight.

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