Though most of the focus in tech revolves around technical skills, soft skills can significantly impact your career. It’s not just what you know but how you work with others that makes a big difference.
Why do soft skills play such a critical role? Let’s consider what it takes when building a software product. To build a truly exceptional software product, you need a team. And to build that team, the individuals need a core set of soft skills to ensure collaboration and teamwork. They need to communicate and work well together, and a lot of that depends on soft skills.
Additionally, when leaders consider people for promotions, exciting assignments, or unique opportunities, oftentimes soft skills play a bigger role than technical skills.
But soft skills aren’t just about making sure you win Miss Congeniality. They drive results and impact.
Though they’re called soft skills, they can be hard to improve.
This post will cover the top five high-impact soft skills that will make you a better software developer. And we’re not going to just list them. We’re going to give you steps you can take to improve those skills.
Soft Skills vs. Technical Skills
First, let’s talk about how soft skills and technical skills differ.
Technical skills involve technology, tools, specialized techniques, and procedures. They’re more replicable or tangible than soft skills. For example, you’re honing your technical skills when you learn a new framework or refactoring technique.
On the other hand, soft skills relate more to interactions, people, or attitudes. Soft skills aren’t specific to a particular domain and are often intangible. Soft skills enable people to work as a team, build connections, and have higher emotional intelligence. They create the foundation for leadership skills and the ability to influence others.
And though they’re called soft skills, they can be hard to improve. So let’s get started.
What Soft Skills Make the Most Impact?
In this section, we’ll review the top five soft skills that will immediately impact your career.
Yes, listening hits every list of important soft skills, but there’s a reason for that. Without listening skills, most of the other skills listed become more difficult.
How can you lead if you don’t listen to the concerns of others? How can you build empathy without hearing what others have to say? And how can you make good decisions when you’re not considering other viewpoints and opinions?
Though listening may seem like a simple act or skill, it’s not always demonstrated well. For example, think about how often you hear people talking past each other, not understanding what the other person is saying. Or how often someone interrupts or starts answering a question but it’s clear they don’t fully understand what was being asked.
Consider times when it feels like someone is listening only to respond with their own story. Perhaps this is common in your own conversations too.
So what are some ways you can improve your listening skills? Usually, it’s by listening and being present. You can practice by listening to podcasts and thinking deeply without formulating your responses. Or listen to coworkers and teammates while making yourself present by disabling notifications and putting your phone down. Before answering a question, confirm that you understand it.
2. Oral and Written Communication
Next, once you’ve covered your listening skills, consider your own communication, both oral and written. When we communicate our ideas to others, we want to make sure that those ideas are clearly understood and reflect our thoughts correctly. Proper communication increases the trust that others have in us.
Additionally, communication can elevate our status to that of a subject-matter expert on ideas and topics we share.
What’s a sign that your communication skills need improvement? Well, consider if there are always a few folks that don’t follow what you’re trying to say or have frequent misunderstandings. At first, you may think the people who don’t understand are the problem. You could assume they just can’t grasp the topic or your explanation. But more often than not, it’s a sign that your communication needs improvement.
Let’s break this down into both written and oral communication.
Written communication allows for async discussions and sharing of ideas. Whether it’s a tech design, API documentation, or product proposal, written communication allows for ideas to be shared with many more people than would normally have access in meetings or group discussions.
Additionally, written communication allows for async information sharing and discussions with distributed teams and remote work. For those who want to reflect on ideas before responding, having written communication gives us time to formulate questions and responses.
How do we improve our written communication? Practice!
To improve our writing, we must write and edit our work. We can also ask for feedback, which can help with some aspects. But we can also see what questions come about or what misunderstandings occur. And then we can work to improve our writing by adding clarifications to avoid misunderstandings.
Additionally, we should read more. Whether it’s technical documents from others, business decisions, or opinions, reading helps us see different ways of sharing information.
With oral communication, you can showcase your knowledge in one-on-ones, team discussions, and presentations. Each one of these requires different approaches and skills and will need practice.
Another way to improve your oral communication skills involves listening to presentations, talks, or teammates. What do you want to replicate when it comes to their communication style? And what do you want to avoid?
Finally, writing can also improve your oral communication. Writing allows you to think through your thoughts, explain them, and know the subject more deeply. That will help you speak to the topic more confidently when it comes up.
Next on the list is decision-making. Oftentimes you’ll find that teams and individuals are hesitant to make decisions.
Perhaps it’s because of past leadership issues, or maybe they don’t want to take on the responsibility. Sometimes they’re too reliant on democratic decision-making within the team, which can lead to ambivalence.
But to truly make an impact, you must make decisions. Now, this doesn’t mean you have to lead with a strong fist and not allow for dissenting views. Sometimes your decisions will be wrong. But if you continually demonstrate indecisiveness, then you will not be seen as a leader or as someone who can drive impact.
To make decisions, consider what you know and what you don’t know. Write it down so you can learn more about your own opinions as you begin to explain the problem or choice you’re faced with. Limit your options and consider the risks of both choosing or not choosing a particular option. If you’re still not ready to make a decision, start by sharing your recommendation.
Over time, your opinions and decisions will become better and more informed. And your leadership and expertise will drive your career forward.
Now let’s talk about empathy. Empathy involves seeing or feeling a situation from another’s viewpoint. It doesn’t mean you have to agree with their reaction or their viewpoint but that you understand how they got there.
To build a great software product, you need empathy. Empathy lets you understand your customers, their pain points, and how to build a product they’ll love.
Working with your team and understanding them requires empathy. Communicating with influence requires empathy. Building a software team and collaborating requires empathy.
Empathy involves seeing or feeling a situation from another’s viewpoint. It doesn’t mean you have to agree with their reaction or their viewpoint but that you understand how they got there.
To improve empathy, consider that your viewpoint isn’t the only one. Read stories or learn about experiences outside of your own. Use the listening skills you’re developing to home in on what another perspective looks like.
This will help you communicate with others, as you can tailor your message to their viewpoint.
For example, your status updates will contain the information your stakeholders need, not the information you’d like to share about the re-architecture you just completed. Instead, you’ll be able to share the information that’s relevant to them about timelines, risks, and future possibilities.
And finally, there’s self-awareness.
To improve your soft skills, you must figure out where you’re starting from. But with low self-awareness, that will be difficult. To begin, reflect on your experiences. Consider behaviors from yourself and those around you. What evidence can you find that either supports or denies your strength with these skills?
For example, if people always ask you for clarification on something you’ve said, then consider that it might not be them. It, in fact, might be you. Or if your team often struggles to pick a direction for a technical solution, perhaps you’re missing decision-making.
If you lack self-awareness, getting feedback from others will help immensely. And you’ll get insight into how others view your other soft skills. But remember, it’s not enough to say you’re open to feedback; you must seek it out and help others give you the feedback you need.
So consider asking pointed questions about timely events. For example, ask a teammate about specific things you did and said, then see what feedback they have. Or ask for anonymous feedback through surveys or open-ended questions from your peers.
While working on your self-awareness, you’ll discover what other soft skills need a little work.
Your Next Steps
So there you have it—five critical soft skills and a few ideas on how to begin improving them.
Which will you work on first? That depends on where you’re starting from. So again, focus on your self-awareness and decide where your strengths and opportunities lie. And then work to build up those skills.
This post was written by Sylvia Fronczak. Sylvia is a software developer that has worked in various industries with various software methodologies. She’s currently focused on design practices that the whole team can own, understand, and evolve over time.