Higher Education Innovation In Action

It’s All about Relationships – Relationships 101: Soft Skills vs. Hard Skills

Natalie Spooner, Sales Consultant Apr 11, 2017

As a registrar, building strong relationships in and out of your department is critical to your success. While technical skills are an absolute necessity, “hard skills” alone won’t cut it. Leaders need to possess “soft skills” too. Soft skills, also known as “people skills,” are personal attributes that enable someone to interact effectively and harmoniously with others, which in turn leads to stronger relationships.

In my experience, having solid, trustworthy relationships with your colleagues is essential to moving forward on initiatives, getting cooperation and participation, meeting deadlines, and most importantly earning respect. Soft skills are generally learned through everyday life experiences, but you can enhance any skill with effort and practice. Review these short lessons and training exercises, then think about how well you work with others. Are you up for the challenge of improving your people skills?

Lesson One: Observe Yourself

Being self-aware is critical to your success, so pay attention to your thoughts, words, and actions. When you practice self-observation, you can quickly recognize whether or not your actions are in alignment with your goals and values so that you can adjust accordingly.

Training Exercise:

Sit in a quiet room alone with a pen and paper. Brainstorm a list of ten words or phrases you’d want a colleague to use when describing you, such as “patient,” “approachable,” and “consensus builder.” Next, write examples of how your actions support those words and phrases. Are some of them more difficult to support than others? If so, those are likely areas that need improvement. Make a conscious effort to improve your behavior, then repeat this exercise a few months later to track improvement. 

Lesson Two: Think Before You Speak

Choosing your words wisely is fundamental to successful relationships. What you say is just as important as how you say it, so be mindful of your tone of voice. Knowing your audience is also key; presenting an idea to a provost will likely require a different tone than an informal office meeting. No matter the audience, follow these rules: allow others to speak, actively listen, and don’t interrupt.

When it is your turn to communicate, take time to think about your response. Office conflicts can arise from time to time, so remain calm, listen attentively, and restate the problem to ensure that everyone is in agreement with the issue at hand. Work together to reach a compromise with a focus on the end goal, not on who is right or wrong.   

Training Exercise:

There are many variations of this exercise. I’ll call mine “Sticks and Stones…” As the leader, take a piece of paper and write your city’s name on it. Instruct each member of your group to each say negative things about your city, one at a time.  With each negative statement, crumple up the paper little by little until it is a crumpled ball. Now do the opposite: instruct participants to say nice things about the city. With each positive comment, un-crumple the paper. When the paper is completely open again, reveal to the group that even though kind words unfurled the paper, the evidence of hurtful words remains. Follow up this exercise with a short discussion reiterating that negative remarks and insults, even those said in haste, can have a long-lasting impact.

Lesson Three: Pay Attention to Body Language

Body language speaks volumes without anyone saying a word. It generally falls into two categories: positive and negative. Ideally, you should use as much positive body language as possible, which is especially true when you’re involved in a contentious discussion.  It can be just as challenging to control non-verbal reactions as it is to choose the best words and tone, so stay focused.  Furthermore, it is just as important to recognize the signals you are receiving from other people’s body language. As much as possible, be sure to react to negative body language in a positive way.   

Training Exercise: 

Visual cues are unmistakable! Practice using some of the positive and negative cues shown below with colleagues, friends, or family and make it a game. Deliver a neutral message with all negative body language and then ask your “team” how they perceived and accepted the message. Then try it with only positive body cues. Now what was the reaction?

Positive Body Language

Negative Body Language

Visual Cue

Nonverbal Message

Visual Cue

Nonverbal Message


Friendly & engaged

Crossed arms



Attentive & alert

Fidgeting hand/tapping foot


Maintaining eye contact

Curious & focused

Lack of eye contact


Leaning forward


Leaning back



Lesson Four: Practice Empathy

When you look at the world through other people’s eyes, you acknowledge and validate their feelings and opinions. Some people think that acknowledging an opinion is the same as agreeing with it. Not true! Acknowledgement not only reinforces respect, it encourages constructive discussion. This in turn creates an empathetic workforce and promotes increased productivity, better morale, and loyalty.

Training Exercise:

You’ve probably heard of the “yard stick” exercise, or some other variation of it. Have your team gather in a circle. Pick an unbiased topic of discussion (for example, how to approach a new initiative). Ask for a volunteer, then give the yard stick to her and have her present her thoughts, ideas, and opinions on the topic.  All others are instructed to listen without commenting. As each participant completes a turn, they should pass the yard stick to the person on the left, who can choose to speak or simply say “pass.” Continue this process until everyone has had a chance to contribute. If the conversation is still alive, allow more turns. This exercise helps everyone to present ideas without interruption or judgement.

Lesson Five: Express Appreciation

Expressing honest appreciation has many advantages: it makes others feel valued and gives them a sense of belonging, conveys respect and gratitude, creates a sense contentment within ourselves, and encourages others to demonstrate the same acts of appreciation. It is contagious.

Practice looking for the good in others and focus on positive acts or contributions rather than negative encounters you may have had in the past. Avoid empty flattery. Giving compliments to others should be about them, not you.

Training Exercise:

Sincere appreciation goes a long way, but it doesn’t require a special occasion. Make an effort to genuinely say “thank you” and practice often!

Here’s a simple idea to practice expressing appreciation. I like to call it “King/Queen for a Day!” Place a crown on the office chair of a colleague who recently did something special for a student, staff, or member of the public. Send an email to the entire staff explaining the special act of service and why it was appreciated. The “King” or “Queen” then has the responsibility to observe coworkers for the next month and “crown” the next recipient. 

Mastering relationships can be challenging. Working on your soft skills is one step in the right direction. Stay positive, observe yourself, self-correct, and practice the lessons presented here. The simplest of rules: treat others the same way you expect to be treated in all areas of your life, work included. You will be amazed at how your collegiate relationships grow and make your workplace happier and more productive.
Relationships 102: Trust & Respect
Relationships 201: Cohesive Words & Actions