The secret weapon of soft skills.

Or how I once saved my boss $500,000.

There’s a growing awareness about the importance of soft skills.

These skills are defined as interpersonal communication skills, active listening, emotional intelligence and other non-technical abilities that are hard to count or quantify. They are vital abilities that can hold a project team together. It’s like organizational cartilage — staff with strong soft skills have the potential to transform the bones of a good organization into a great one, especially in times of stress.

I guess the term “soft” is meant to convey that these skills are intangible. I would offer two alternative definitions: soft skills are actually creative skills, and collaborative negotiation skills wrap many soft skills together. So how do we define collaboration?

At its core, collaborative negotiation involves:

  • Spotting common problems (often through active listening)
  • Understanding people’s motivations for taking action
  • Creatively generating options that satisfy your team’s criteria and design constraints
  • Generating totally new solutions that can also squash problems for your team

Here’s an example: I once saved my boss’s boss $500,000.

I saved her deferred costs because I understood data in a way no one else did at the time. This was 2005 —not long ago. Yet data as a field in the progressive movement was barely a thing, let alone the science it is now. I was a nerdy kid from a technical university that had somehow stumbled into progressive politics. I did not know how my technical skills would help fight the good fight, but I was creative and curious.

I had heard my boss and the executive director talk about a dilemma they had — a big set of member records was set to expire. There was a need to get these folks to renew their membership, which the organization typically did through phone calls and direct mail. As I began to examine the data, I found that almost all of these records had some sort of dated source code on it — the day the member signed up. In fact, we had another 6 to 8 months before the legal obligation would expire. I managed to rescue about 125,000 records out of a set of maybe 400,000.

I knew from previous campaigns that we would spend anywhere from $3 to $5 per acquisition, so I multiplied the number of records that I had rescued by $4 (the average) and arrived at $500,000. I wrote up a quick memo, presented it to my boss, who in turn presented it to the executive director. I had helped dissipate a looming disaster and had bought the organization time.

There were other (literally) data-driven successes after that event, and each time I was able to show how my geekery had save time, money or effort (all strong motivation for the bosses). Each time, I gained more trust with my colleagues and leadership and helped build my credibility. This opened doors to support suggestions I would have on what new technology we should adopt in the future. The options I would present were all aligned with the motivators of saving time, money, and effort.

The trust I built through these dozens of small negotiations finally paid off. I negotiated an unprecedented agreement that allowed me to work a compressed four-day schedule so I could work on a personal project one day a week for 3 months. The bosses blessed the agreement so I wouldn't have to choose between quitting my job and going after the personal project. They helped me expand options in my work life to make space for the personal project.

Most importantly, I never doubted my usefulness to the organization.

I knew exactly what value I was bringing because I was forced to explain what I was doing. It could have been a burden to have technical skills in a place where very little institutional knowledge existed before my arrival. It could have made colleagues defensive, too. I transformed the skills into a benefit by being transparent through communication and by bringing everyone along in the process. I still deeply believe that data was (and is, for any operation) the backbone of the organization, and I helped my leadership understand the value of the data as well as the data nerd.

Ten years later, I still use collaborative negotiation skills on a daily basis in so many ways — well beyond just explaining nerdy data tricks. Knowing the needs and motivations of the diverse people I work with helps me create solutions that keep the work moving forward. Is it a soft skill? Maybe. I like to think of it as a creative skill as well as an empowering one.

Being able to articulate the value you bring to any situation — and being able to creatively generate solutions where there might appear to be none — is essential skill for anyone . When you are able to articulate your value to a project or organization, you are better able to slay any notion of imposter syndrome. Knowing your worth is power in any negotiation, and claiming that truth puts your career success in your own hands.

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Tanya Tarr negotiates the good fight in Austin, Texas. You can follow her on Twitter, where she posts a potpurri of career advice, Texas politics, workers rights and cat photos.