There’s nothing soft about soft skills explains Robert Hosking

Finding success as an administrative professional these days depends more and more on your “soft skills”, or how well you communicate effectively and work collaboratively with others. People without these skills increasingly find themselves held back in the workplace and have difficulty moving up in the organisation.

If you have any doubt that soft skills matter, just think about some of the most successful administrative staff you know. Chances are, they all have strong people skills – they’re excellent communicators and adept leaders, and they seem to have the magic touch when it comes to getting things done. They also have a knack for problem solving and negotiation and always exercise sound judgment.

Soft skills don’t come naturally to everyone. Fortunately, you can improve them with some self-examination, attention to detail and diligence. Here are some suggestions to help you develop (or polish) your interpersonal abilities:

Get input from your colleagues.

You may already have some ideas about which capabilities you need to work on most. But you should also seek input from others.

Ask a mentor, a longtime colleague or your boss – or, better still, all of them – for an honest assessment of your strengths and weaknesses when it comes to soft skills. You may be told, for example, that your emails and memos sometimes fail to get your point across. With that information, you can seek out training courses or mentoring opportunities that will help you improve your writing skills.

Learn how to listen.

Effective communication isn’t all about talking. The best communicators are usually also good listeners. They can zero in on the essence of what others are saying, and they use that understanding to craft thoughtful responses that move a discussion forward, toward a resolution. People with poor listening habits, though, often find themselves dealing with misunderstandings and communication breakdowns.

If you think your listening skills may need improvement, start by observing yourself while other people are talking. Are you really paying attention to what they’re saying, or are you thinking about what you’re going to say next? If you’re distracted more often than not, work on focusing intently and exclusively on the speaker. Avoid the temptation to interrupt or finish the person’s sentence. Once they’ve finished talking, take the time to formulate a response based on what was actually said – not what you were planning to say.

You can also periodically paraphrase or summarise what you’ve heard from the speaker for the purpose of clarification. Don’t be afraid to say “So, let me make sure I fully understand. You want me to…” Make sure the other person affirms or corrects your assumptions.

Pay attention to nonverbal cues, too.

Being a great listener is important, but sometimes the most crucial information communicated in a conversation isn’t spoken at all. Whenever you interact with people, observe their body language and listen to their tone of voice. If a colleague is frowning or standing with his arms crossed, for example, he might not be receptive to what you’re saying or the approach you’re taking.

Be alert to these signs and look for patterns. Maybe one executive you work with doesn’t like to be approached after 5pm. Or your manager might prefer to hear one fully fleshed-out solution to a problem, rather than discussing a few preliminary ideas with you. When you can anticipate people’s needs, you can adjust your approach accordingly, resulting in more effective interactions with everyone.

Sharpen your communication skills.

In today’s business environment, all administrative professionals need to have excellent written and verbal communication skills. If the messages they’re sending out – via email, memo or phone – are hard to understand, colleagues, customers and clients might miss the most important points.

Remember one simple rule when composing messages: Keep them short and simple. Ask yourself, what’s the most crucial thing you need to get across? Then get to that point as quickly as possible. Also, avoid jargon and slang, always keep a professional tone, and make sure you edit and proofread any written documents before you send them out.

Take an active role on teams.

Chances are, you’re already a part of a few project teams at your workplace. Take advantage of that and use them to hone your interpersonal skills. When you pay attention to how other people communicate, you can learn effective new strategies and techniques. Also consider joining a team outside the workplace, such as a nonprofit board or a group formed to promote a community-based initiative, which offer similar opportunities to improve your communication and collaboration skills.

Sweat the small (but important) stuff.

Make sure you always greet people appropriately, deliver a firm handshake, make introductions and actively engage others in conversation. Knowing how to act in social situations comes more naturally to some people than others, but even a lifelong introvert can learn to be more at ease socially by participating in networking groups, social clubs or discussion groups, and by simply observing people who approach social interactions with confidence.

Use your best judgment.

Executive assistants are often aware of sensitive information about personnel and other matters in the office. If you are working on – or come across in the course of your work – this kind of information, it is critical that you exercise discretion.

For example, in the course of processing paperwork for a job opening, you may learn that a colleague’s friend is being seriously considered for the position. The news might be exciting, but you must keep it to yourself. On the other hand, you might overhear a private conversation that involves a subject your manager would want to know about and have to decide whether it’s ethical to tell him what you heard. These situations may come up at any time, and how you respond will have a lot to do with your success in the workplace.

Learn how to make a deal.

You may not be a salesperson, but as an administrative professional, you likely find yourself negotiating from time to time. Perhaps you need to make the best deal with an office supply vendor, or you have to convince a handful of executives that a change in a longstanding process would help increase your efficiency.

If your deal-making skills haven’t proven successful, brush up on the best ways to negotiate, from researching the issue to building support to reaching an agreement. Also, make sure you, too, are open to compromise when finding a middle ground that would benefit everyone involved.

Soft skills will continue to be a big factor in the success of administrative professionals. If you make the effort and take the time to improve your interpersonal skills at work, there’s a good chance it will pay off in advancement opportunities for you.

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Robert Hosking is the former Executive Director of OfficeTeam ( OfficeTeam is a division of Robert Half, the world’s first and largest specialized staffing firm. The company has more than 300 staffing locations worldwide and offers ... (Read More)

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