Okay, you eyerolled on "soft skills," right? See if this is helpful (this is how someone explained it to me four years ago). "Let's imagine we are essentially the same as our competitors. We have the same access to talent, capital, and market. What is a competitive advantage they may not be aware of that can put us 5-10% ahead? What's an area they may eyeroll on? Ah hah! Soft skills and developing them for our team.

In boom times, or really, in all times, we sometimes gloss over the basics. Strengths in communication, empathy, and listening skills are often afterthoughts when awarding leadership titles or hiring new employees. Hard skills are easier to measure with KPIs and OKRs, so we give those numbers more weight when handing out bonuses or adding someone to our team. 

It's a no-brainer to award employee-of-the-month to that team member who works late every night. But it takes a leader who knows the value of soft skills to hand it to someone who goes home on time but makes the whole team better by being a great sounding board. This is probably why the 2016 Deloitte's 2016 Global Human Capital Trends report found 92 percent of respondents rated soft skills as a critical priority. These skills retain employees, build culture, and improve leadership.

So with Covid-19 slowing down your business and increasing company stress, there's no better time than now to work on your soft skills like communication, empathy, and listening. Here are four areas I've been focusing on.

Being Present

In a crisis, it's often hard to concentrate on what someone else needs. Let's face it, you're probably trying to do six impossible things at once before breakfast. Longtime NPR host Celeste Headlee, author of We Need To Talk, says if you don't have time to stop what you're doing and listen to a colleague, then you don't have time to talk. 

By not giving your full attention, you're wasting your time and theirs. So either choose to be present at that moment or arrange another time when you can be fully present.

Listening Actively

Good leaders (and friends) know how to listen. We often think of leaders as the loudest person in the room, barking orders, or giving a motivating speech. According to Liz Wiseman, the Wall Street Journal bestselling author of Multipliers, the best leaders are often the quietest people in the room.

Good listening is about taking in and evaluating information. So, when you do talk, you first show your understanding by repeating the person's key terms and rephrasing what you took away. Then you can move on to asking a deep question.

Asking Questions

Strong listeners ask deep questions without easy answers. Shallow questions ask things you already know the answer to. According to Wiseman, good leaders (and listeners) ask questions in order to learn more and go deeper into an issue. These questions can't often be answered right away. The replies often demand more thought, research, and work.

Always Respecting Team Members

Sometimes it's hard to hear what people have to tell you--especially in the pandemic. It's easy to lay blame on others and harder to give your colleagues the same benefit of doubt you give yourself. Robyn Benincasa, a teamwork expert and New York Times bestselling author of How Winning Works, suggests the key to successful team camaraderie is to keep treating your teammates with respect even when things aren't going well. When you're in a competition (or a national crisis), acting like a team is more important than feeling like a team. She says your feeling of camaraderie will return when the situation improves but, in the meantime, you'll be working well together.

Business, at the end of the day, is about more than numbers on a spreadsheet. It's about maintaining relationships with people. Keep those relationships strong and your business will stay strong too. Plant seeds, nurture them, try new things--this is how to stay ahead in a downturn or any market conditions. Plus, it's the human and right thing to do.