Is Critical Thinking a Soft Skill?

Is Critical Thinking a Soft Skill?

As with most things, the state vs trait debate is nuanced. I don’t think any personality psychologist would claim that personality is entirely state-based or entirely-trait-based. Instead, it’s somewhere in between. You may have general tendencies, but find yourself thinking, feeling, and behaving differently depending on the context. While you may tend to be shy and introverted, you may find yourself developing the skills you need to be outgoing and sociable if your job demands it. To use myself as an example, as a student I used to turn beet-red and mumble whenever I talked in class. I still get easily embarrassed in front of people, just not when I’m teaching or speaking about my area of expertise. Your range of comfort or ability will vary, but it’s not immutable and unchanging. It’s not impossible to learn a new skill over time.

If these soft skills can be trained and measured, what makes them soft skills? I’m not entirely sure. Even if personality is treated as an immutable trait, there is a lot of variability in what makes a certain personality good or bad for a job. Personality traits that are good in one job, may be a hindrance in others. The other “soft skills” – leadership, communication, time-management – are all skills that require experience to develop. While there are commonalities, these will all vary depending on the workplace and workplace culture.

These are also a set of skills that are often studied by social scientists. It therefore takes some level of expertise and knowledge of behavioral research to measure them appropriately. When looking at the research on these types of skills, I pulled largely from research within psychology and economics. You can train and measure ‘soft skills’, it’s just a bit harder than checking for a certification for a software program.

Perhaps most telling, whether or not something is considered a ‘hard’ or ‘soft’ skill seems to depend on who is making the list. There appears to be some debate about whether problem solving is a hard or soft skill. The infographic above from indeed lists it as a soft skill, but edupristine lists it as a hard skill. Time management also hops from hard to soft depending on which list you look at.

I don’t think it’s useful to label something as a ‘hard’ or ‘soft’ skill. While there are certainly differences in how one can acquire, develop, and demonstrate different skills, the labels ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ don’t seem to adequately convey those nuances. Instead, I would argue that labeling something as a ‘soft’ skill glosses over some important information. Skills can be trained and assessed. Understanding what skills an employer is specifically looking for can help job-seekers (and students) understand how to develop that skill. “Communication” is pretty vague. Does this job require the ability to give engaging presentations? To provide effective feedback on team members’ performance? To mitigate disputes and clear up misunderstandings? To explain complex processes to clients in terms they will understand? All of these are communication skills one might need in a specific job, but are very different. If anything, it seems like ‘soft skills’ is shorthand for “a vague sense these things are important, without taking the effort to list out the specifics”. 

Critical thinking, then, is both and neither. It can be trained and can be measured, but will rely on domain-specific information and experience (3). We can teach some domain general skills and techniques, like understanding the need for persistence, looking for contradictory evidence, and so on; but the speed and ease with which you can do those things depends on practice.