The letter from the local tax collector’s office said we were being penalized for failing to pay school taxes last year. It threatened if we didn’t send money by a certain date, there would be additional consequences.
I looked at the letterhead and didn’t recognize the name of the tax collector, which seemed odd as I’ve known her for years. The tone of the letter was also terse; not at all like Patti, who was sweet and understanding. A long-time popular public servant who had been re-elected multiple times, she was a fixture in the township building who always greeted you with a bright smile. A letter from her would have a much softer tone and say something like “perhaps you’ve overlooked the due date of your last school tax payment”. This made no sense to me. So, I called the office.
Imagine my surprise to learn that Patti had suddenly died. The letter we received was from the newly appointed temporary tax collector. After my initial sadness over Patti’s loss, anger set in. Instead of a threatening letter, why didn’t this individual introduce himself and share that his predecessor had died? Why didn’t he say something nice about her and offer to help people during this surprising and upsetting transition?
We did miss our tax payment, but not purposely, which Patti would have understood. Even if she couldn’t forgive the penalty, she would not have made us feel like slackers trying to get away with something.
There are hard skills and soft skills. Hard skills are job specific. These are technical skills and expertise required to do your job. Soft skills are people skills. It’s about relating to others. Think of it this way. Let’s say you have a choice between working with two different accountants. One is slightly more qualified than the other, but can be short tempered, rude and not easily accessible. The other is warm, friendly, always picks up the phone and seems to care about you. Who would you choose? Most of us would choose the latter. A person’s expertise might bring someone in the door, but their ability to communicate and relate is what will keep them there.
It’s those soft skills that help us problem solve, collaborate and build constructive relationships with others. When organizations encourage development of these skills, they create positive environments where people feel valued. That goes a long way toward strengthening relationships with customers, colleagues and other stakeholders. In fact, a national survey conducted by the Harris Poll found that 16 percent of hiring managers believe soft skills are even more important than hard skills.
So, which soft skills should we develop and why? Let’s focus on four:
Empathy, especially during difficult times, conveys caring and understanding. During very public situations when a company has done something wrong, it’s most important skill a spokesperson can develop if it’s genuine. While facts are important, it’s how those facts are communicated that form perceptions.
Your ability to communicate clearly, concisely and openly speaks to trust and credibility. There may be times when you can’t share information. Instead of shutting people out, listen to their concerns and let them know you will share information as soon as you are able.
Becoming more self-aware of your short-comings will help you change and improve behaviors. People who are self-aware are perceived as open and willing to learn new skills.
Lastly, never underestimate the importance of eye contact and body language. Making direct eye contact suggests you consider someone important. Open gestures, facing the person who is talking to you and a smile when appropriate positions you as approachable.
There is also the issue of tone whether intended or unintended. Recently, I inquired as to when we would receive a deposit for an upcoming program. The contract office shot back an email that said: “As I stated in our original email, the deposit will be sent out on x date.”
I wondered why the nasty tone. Were they mad at me? Were they annoyed that I didn’t see or remember the date? Were they trying to let me know who is in charge? Or, maybe the sender didn’t realize how they sounded. Maybe they meant nothing at all.
Maybe, the tax collector didn’t realize how harsh he sounded, especially so close to his colleague’s death. Tone can be very misunderstood when someone can’t see you or hear you. Tone conveys attitude.
Winston Churchill once said, “Attitude is a little thing that makes a big difference.” Attitude is a soft skill. Whether writing a letter, sending an email or speaking in person, an upbeat positive attitude is contagious and can patch up misunderstandings.
If you just take an extra second and proceed with caution, you might prevent misunderstandings that can sabotage relationships and convey a negative impression you never intended.