Can you “learn” soft skills the way you can learn how to drive or play the guitar? The answer is yes, but don’t expect to get soft skills training at a company-sponsored workshop.
Even though many managers say it takes strong interpersonal skills to move up the company ladder, few firms provide training in this area. In an Accountemps survey of CFOs, only one in five said their organization is likely to invest in soft skills training for accounting and finance staff in the next two years.
So you’re on your own. If you’re like many accountants, you’ve noticed the increasing need for non-accounting skills and abilities in your job. For one thing, you may find yourself collaborating more frequently across the business, outside of accounting and finance.
Here are four tips for getting your own soft skills training without going back to school:
1. Get out and about
It’s easy to become so preoccupied in the daily demands of your role that you never leave the office. But that’s just what you need to do. Making time to attend association and community group meetings gives you experience in initiating and maintaining conversations with new contacts. And if you drill down a bit more and get involved in committees and teams, you can elevate your communication skills.
Also, friendships at work can provide a sounding board and support system. Go out to lunch, or socialize afterwork. A sense of camaraderie at work can improve employee communication and cooperation, which contributes to career success.
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2. Pursue tact and diplomacy
Isaac Newton called tact “the art of making a point without making an enemy.” As for diplomacy, journalist David Frost once said it’s “the art of letting someone else have your way.” At the end of the day, tact and diplomacy share the same intent: They help you achieve your goals while maintaining good office relations. Here are some tips:
- It’s easy to be stubborn and focus on your own needs. Instead, take the high road and collaborate for the common good. Let colleagues know you understand their positions.
- If you’re upset, take time to collect your thoughts. You can’t afford to say something regrettable that permanently damages relationships.
- If you need to have a tough conversation, plan it out first. Imagine the counterarguments. Try to steer clear of the terms always and never.
- Give feedback directly and privately. If you have something to say to a coworker, go directly to the offender and have a gentle but firm word in private.
- Know the difference between criticism and constructive feedback. Harsh criticism tears down; constructive feedback helps build up.
3. Build adaptability on the job
Charles Darwin may not have been an accountant, but he knew something about adaptability. He learned that the species fittest for survival are the ones most adaptable to change.
The rapid advancement of technology means you’re likely to see widespread changes during your accounting career. Today, it’s the transition to cloud accounting. Tomorrow, who knows? Whatever comes next, the fittest accountants will be the ones who are flexible, positive and open to change. So here are some challenges:
- Don’t become so intent on getting your way that you fail to acknowledge other points of view. Demonstrate a sincere interest in your colleagues, minimizing interruptions and asking for clarification when necessary.
- Try to see things from another point of view. Asking questions can channel your uncertainty into something that boosts productivity in the workplace.
- Accept new challenges outside your comfort zone, such as offering to fill in where help is needed, leading a training session on something you know well or submitting an article for the company newsletter.
4. Practice good communication
Yes, you want to hold the floor at times to get your point across, but don’t let this be your single objective when in a group setting. Instead of automatically blurting out something you want to say the minute it occurs to you, practice active listening skills. By becoming a better listener, you’ll not only improve your likability and ability to influence others, but you’ll also avoid misunderstandings and conflicts.
Soft skills don’t only refer to person-to-person interactions, of course. Maintain a professional tone in all your written communication, from emails to texts, not to mention voicemails and printed memos. Even the most informal communiqué requires common courtesies such as “please” and “thank you.” You never know how far your messages will be forwarded.
The bottom line is that soft skills can be learned. But it takes practice.