Actions Speak Louder Than Words: Why Teaching Soft Skills Starts with Embodying Them

Career Readiness
Career Readiness, Soft Skills, Teaching Hacks, Teaching Methods

Article Summary

  • 92% of nearly 900 executive respondents said soft skills were “equally important or more important than technical skills.”
  • Our recent study found that listening skills, detail orientation and communication are what employers seek most.
  • “…Educators exist to produce good people, not good test results. The true measure of our success is hard to record on paper but easy to recognize in a student’s behavior."
Reading Time: 4 minutes

Soft skills. Given how often these two alliterative words grace headlines and inspire instructional reflection, it can feel like the phrase of the century. This expanded emphasis makes soft skills a constant topic of conversation, which can weigh heavily on every educator, employer and job seeker today.

And for good reason—92% of the nearly 900 executives polled in a Wall Street Journal survey last year said soft skills were “equally important or more important than technical skills.” Other research also reinforces the importance of soft skills: a report by iCIMS found 94% of recruiters think strong soft skills are the edge employees need to move into leadership, even more important than years of experience. Additionally, our own recent study with Morning Consult found that things like listening skills, detail orientation and communication are what employers seek most in candidates.

But as the special skills that help people interact better with one another—and differentiate one person from the next and human from machine—is it any wonder they’ve become such a hot topic in higher ed and corporate settings today? After all, isn’t emotional intelligence just as important as any other type?

We think so. That’s why we talked to some great college instructors across several disciplines to learn more about the skills they try to nurture in their students to prepare them for success in work and in life. One of our favorite findings: A vital part of bolstering soft skills in students starts with instructors embodying them in the classroom. Read on to learn more about what soft skills really are, and how consistent modeling can make a big impact on your students.

A Hard Look at Soft Skills

While you might find them called different things and classified in different ways, the “biggies” of the soft skills are fairly recognizable. According to Resume Genius’ comprehensive Top Ten list, key skills and sub-skills include:

  • COMMUNICATION: Clarity, Respect, Listening, Oral and Written Communication, etc.
  • TEAMWORK: Conflict Management, Delegation, Collaboration, Negotiating, etc.
  • ADAPTABILITY: Optimism, Open-mindedness, Calmness, Self-confidence, etc.
  • PROBLEM-SOLVING: Analysis, Logical Reasoning, Initiative, Persistence, etc.
  • CREATIVITY: Imagination, Reframing, Mind-mapping, Experimenting, etc.
  • WORK ETHIC: Integrity, Dependability, Self-motivation, Professionalism, etc.
  • INTERPERSONAL SKILLS: Empathy, Humor, Diplomacy, Patience, etc.
  • TIME-MANAGEMENT: Prioritizing, Decision-making, Focus, Organization, etc.
  • LEADERSHIP: Humility, Cultural intelligence, Authenticity, Trust, etc.
  • ATTENTION TO DETAIL: Critical observation, Acuity, Recall, Questioning, etc.

(Check out this article for Resume Genius’ full breakdown of subskills.)

It’s easy to see how vital soft skills are for any industry, and every career path. But the very broad nature of these skills presents a challenge for instructors: how can you help your students improve in these seemingly intangible, immeasurable areas? While they may seem hard to assess in the classic sense, you’ll know them when you see them. When one of your students offers to take notes for her peer with the sick toddler, when you receive a well-structured email from someone in your course, when an in-class discussion leads to one student understanding the perspective of another student—those are soft skills in action. Try to take notice of these moments, then reflect on them and revel in them when you do. As Saga Briggs puts it: “…Educators exist to produce good people, not good test results. The true measure of our success is hard to record on paper but easy to recognize in a student’s behavior. Look for the signs and be open to improvement.”

Leading by Example

Think about the soft skills you employ every day in your own instruction. Mentoring, check. Observation, check. Planning, goal-setting, organization, public speaking. Check, check, check, check. And that’s just scratching the surface. There’s the constructive feedback you give on term papers and the cultural intelligence and diplomacy you demonstrate when dealing with students from different backgrounds and varying skill levels. Not to mention the listening you do and authenticity you show when you hear out your students’ life stories and academic goals.

Some of the most impactful teaching moments occur when instructors connect with students on a human level. Renee Rawcliffe, an adjunct professor for Simmons College in Boston really believes in the value of modeling when it comes to imparting soft skills in her students. According to Renee, “There’s something in social work we call the ‘parallel process.’ The work we do in class should empower students to grow within their own practice. Approaching the classwork with curiosity, humility and bravery is one way in which I engage with my students and these are qualities I hope they bring to their own social work practice.” The best part is, it’s a practice Renee can see making an impact. One of her students recently wrote to tell her that due to a discussion they had in class about cultural humility, she was able to approach a dialogue with a client that she’d originally felt uncomfortable approaching. “She felt safe exploring the issues of culture and race in our classroom community, and as such was encouraged to do the same in her field work,” Renee said.


“She felt safe exploring the issues of culture and race in our classroom community, and as such was encouraged to do the same in her field work.”


Professor Mary King also employs soft skills modeling in her Criminal Justice courses at University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. “When they come and talk to me after class I am very aware of my tone of voice, my eye contact and even my stance. When I discuss de-escalation between police and the community I talk about how soft skills like these can make a world of difference in the moment. So then when a student comes to me for a grade dispute, for example, I use these soft skills to de-escalate the situation.” Mary also frequently uses humor to engage and connect with her students and make learning more fun—claiming that students don’t respond to the “sage on the stage” persona. She leverages memes, GIFs, self-deprecation and corny jokes to make her students more comfortable and get them to let their guard down, which she says enhances their receptivity to learning and bolsters the relatability of the content. On the flip side, Mary stresses how important it is for her students to keep a sense of humor in the field, where they’re “going to experience some of the weirdest stuff ever.”

While they might not fall cleanly under any one traditional soft skills category, we can’t discount the emotion-based traits instructors embody in the classroom. These can be just as integral to a student’s career success. Think composure for a teacher, compassion for a social worker and courage for a police officer.

You’re Making a Lasting Impact

As you’ve probably seen in your own teaching journey, nurturing your students’ “human” skills won’t just benefit them in the workplace. Strong soft skills can translate to richer relationships, more meaningful interactions and a life with less stress. Since soft skills are life skills, you can rest assured the impact you make on your students by helping them hone this skillset is one they’ll feel for a lifetime.

Curious what other uniquely human skills today’s employers value most?