Are soft skills innate, or can they be learned?

The process of integrating technology into a company’s fabric of operations is quickly becoming a more collaborative process. In this new reality, IT staffers must begin to learn the tricky skill of communicating complex technology concepts to management and peers who are coming to the table toting MBAs, not networking certifications.

What two years ago may have been a “nice-to-have” skill, effective communication is an undisputed necessity for any IT pro looking to move up the corporate ladder. But what exactly does it encompass these days? Are the elements that make up a sound set of “soft skills” teachable, or are some lucky ones simply born with them and others left to struggle through as best they can?

There’s no doubt that the art, just like painting or woodworking or throwing a football, comes more naturally to some. Whether they had a parent of older sibling who set a graceful example in the company of others, or whether they just naturally like being around other people, this area of career development doesn’t even register a blip of concern on their radar.

For others, though, working in a collaborative manner can be a perpetually uphill battle. Taking into account the feelings, objectives and points of view of others is usually an exercise in patience, especially when they run counter to what one believes or requires.

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What makes the process so difficult is that it is comparable to building a house of cards: You can answer every oddball question with the greatest civility and always keep calm in the face of the toughest boss, but one terse reply or angry sigh can destroy whatever goodwill you’ve built up and leave others feeling like they can’t trust you.

The good news is that soft skills are much like other, more tangible abilities — they can be learned and honed over time. And just like most skills, this one has a set of tools that make the task that much easier. You could probably build a chair without a saw, but you’ll get to the finish line more quickly if you have one — and have a better quality result.

The most important soft skills tool is patience or, more specifically, the ability to count to five before speaking. Even if your instincts are correct and you want to blurt out a response to someone who is clearly off-track with a suggestion or request, that extra few seconds of down time can allow you to position your words with a civil and polite tone.

Another key tool is optimism. There’s no need to paint a plastic smile on your face for eight hours a day, as that won’t resonate with others for long. But if you’re used to looking at a half-full glass of water as half-empty, try seeing it in the opposite light. Ask yourself what can be done to fix a problem your team is struggling with instead of stewing about what’s broken.

Other tools include inquisitiveness and curiosity about others’ situations and concerns, as no one can effectively help someone else if they don’t know their pain points. Simply asking will help in the effort to stand out. While not all soft skills come naturally or easy to most people, but over time these approaches will become second nature to those who stick with them, making those individuals wonder how they got through the new corporate jungle without them.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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