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Soft skills: Develop interpersonal skills during your bachelor’s degree with these reliable tricks

James Davis

Careers Commentator
Your bachelor’s degree is a chance to become an exceptional communicator. We’ve got some great ways to leverage the opportunities at your disposal.

We couldn’t live without our phones, but soon they might be able to live without us! The rise of AI and predictive technologies have led to incredible advancements in the realms of manufacturing, learning, software and just about every sector you can think of. From law to commerce; medicine to the arts. This really is an exciting time to be alive, but a scary one too. Even high-skilled work is gradually being replaced by cheaper, more efficient AI substitutes. As someone aspiring to complete a bachelor’s degree and enter the workforce, you’ll need to learn what machines and software can’t. Generally speaking, this means strong soft skills like analytical thinking, compassion, teamwork, attention to detail and adaptability. A recent McKinsey report on automation found an increasing need for graduates with soft skills to meet the growing demands of a 21st-century workplace. Some of the most important skills you’ll need are interpersonal. 

This is exactly what employers are after, not only in Australia but the world. In 2019 alone, China saw 8.3 million fresh graduates, with job vacancies closing rapidly. While students took stacks of resumes to state-run jobs faires, companies complained hires just didn’t have the soft skills they were looking for. Graduates in tech industries like computer science and engineering had an easier time, leaning heavily on technical ability to compensate for soft-skill deficiencies, something the Chinese higher education system struggles with. It’s not just China though. In countries like the US, UK and Australia, record numbers continue graduating ill-equipped for the job market

Just about every industry you can think of requires strong communicators and people who will not only understand their colleagues and clients but meet their evolving demands. Even back in 2016, a Payscale work preparedness report was conducted with nearly 64,000 managers hiring 14,000 US university graduates. A whopping 60% of graduate employers found their hires to lack critical thinking and problem-solving abilities. 56% found they lacked attention to detail and 46% found they were poor communicators. And this is in a system where university students have an extra year on Aussies. 

Fortunately, there’s plenty you can do to close the gap. University is full of opportunities, but it’s up to you to go out of your way. In this article, we’ll focus on developing work-ready interpersonal skills, but make sure to sign up here and stay tuned when we talk about developing the others, like becoming better at analysis or attention to detail. You can even read our short article on innovative thinking afterwards if you’re hungry for more.

Join your university debating and toastmaster societies

These serve two similar, but slightly different functions. Whereas a debating society teaches quick thinking and argumentative techniques while remaining calm under pressure, toastmaster societies are about developing public speaking skills in general. According to the payscale report on hard skills, 39% of managers found their graduate hires to be lacking in public speaking ability, second only to writing (44%). This means joining these societies can not only bolster a skill weakness but make you a better communicator generally. 

Joining a student-run club or society is pretty simple. Most will have a tiny annual membership fee, think $5 - $10, or be outright free if they’re well funded by some other means. Encourage some friends to come along if you’re not feeling confident enough yet. If you aren’t, that’s fine. What matters is mustering the drive to just go. If you just want to watch a debate or speech the first time you go, that’s a perfectly valid way to see what it’s about, talk to club members, ask for some advice and generally get a feel for what it’s all about. Most should be more than happy to just have you sit in and muster up your confidence. You’re also likely to meet other new members or people in a similar situation. In addition, the more competitive alternative, namely debating societies, often have beginner-only debates. These are more forgiving and will likely feature more time to prepare. 

If your university doesn’t have either of these, there should be similar opportunities in every Australian city. Go out of your way to locate where they are, when they meet and what it costs. It’s an investment that likely won’t go astray.

Practice, practice, practice

Debating and toastmaster societies help, but there are plenty of organic situations you can put yourself in to develop. 

One method is looking for guest lectures happening on-campus after hours. Some of these may be run by a club, but others may be conducted by the university union or third-party. In addition to learning something new, these events likely have a stand and chat segment before and after, where it’s possible to just meet people. Nobody will mind you just joining a conversation, particularly if it’s about the lecture about to take place. 

If you’re not usually a social butterfly, you can even go on a pub crawl… at least for the first hour or two before communication becomes secondary! The point is just exercising those communication skills. To get the most out of this practice, try to keep your mind on a few things:

Active listening

Are you doing your best to understand what the other person is saying to such an extent you’ll be able to ask questions about it? This is key to just about any personal interaction. Many people have an inclination to simply wait until it’s their turn to talk. If you do this and catch yourself doing it, well done. You’re already better at this than most! If you remember times in the past where you’ve done this, that’s OK. Now you know. Waiting to talk simply isn’t conducive of good communication; it’s something both friends and colleagues will pick up on and react negatively to, at least eventually. 

One of the most effective ways to listen actively is asking clarifying questions and stating what the other person has said in your own words. Seem iterative, but it lets both parties know they’re on the same page. This makes it pretty integral to your arsenal of interpersonal skills.

Putting yourself in their shoes

If someone’s telling you about their problems, do your best to empathise and avoid trying to form solutions. It can be very tempting; after all, why would they be expressing their problems if they didn’t want solutions? At the end of the day, they likely just want to be heard. Put yourself in their shoes and hear them. That’ll make them feel more secure in their choice to speak with you and you’ll put them at ease. 

Finding the good in people

If you don’t know someone particularly well, which will often be the case if you’re practicing some of the above methods and going out of your comfort zone, try to find good traits in people. Do this either by asking about what they enjoy or what they see themselves as good at, or just by observing how they behave and speak. This works to cultivate your own, positive attitude of people. If you’re a hardened cynic, you may actively be attempting the opposite in daily life! If you can turn around and see what’s good in people, which for some can be difficult, this will naturally make talking to others all the more pleasant for all involved. 

Staying calm

This doesn’t have to mean being a monk! You can still have a laugh with people. This generally means being aware of how you’re feeling and taking control if things get heated. Most people you meet will be friendly, but the times when they aren’t are the truest test of character. In the workplace, you won’t always like your colleagues, but knowing how to remain calm even when they’re being disrespectful or just a bit annoying is invaluable. You can learn this just by staying self-aware and trying not to lose yourself in the moment. If you can stay calm, you can stay in control. 

If you can practice these four qualities while you’re out, you’ll get even more out of the experience.

You should now have a much better idea of what developing your interpersonal skills entails. Honestly? It’s not that scary once you’ve taken the initial plunge. Most peoples’ fear of public speaking, or just speaking in general, can stem from the unknown. Once you’ve met a lot of people and had a chance to develop, you’ll see it’s not so bad after all. You’ll come out of your bachelor’s degree with extra confidence not only for the workforce, but in your personal life as well. That kind of charisma can’t be replaced by a machine. At least, not yet! In the meantime, you’ll have two legs up on the competition.