How and Why to Level Up Your Soft Skills as an Interpreter

Soft skills are one of those things that we here at InterpreMed believe plays a key role in your success as an interpreter, whether you’re of the medical variety or not.  But it’s not often that we hear about soft skills for interpreters, let alone why they matter, or even how to work on them.  So in addition to the infographic series on soft skills we’ve been posting to our social media accounts, we’re writing this article to get more interpreters thinking about incorporating soft skills education in their professional development!

What are soft skills?

To really understand what soft skills are, it’s perhaps easier to provide a negative definition and answer the question: what are hard skills?  Hard skills are those measurable, technical skills we’ve worked hard to sharpen.  Some examples for interpreters are our simultaneous and consecutive interpreting skills, our note-taking skills, our sight translation skills, and even our level of fluency in our working languages.  If you’ve ever taken an assessment on any of these abilities, such as a language proficiency test, you were probably given a score that reflects your level of proficiency in that skill.

Hard skills are measurable technical skills, whereas soft skills are non-technical skills that include our interpersonal skills.
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Some examples of soft skills we shared across our social media accounts.
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Soft skills, on the other hand, are non-technical skills.  Many of our soft skills are interpersonal skills, but contrary to popular belief, not all of them are!  Even though our hard skills are extremely important, our soft skills can have a big impact on how we work as well.  They’re the behaviors, habits, and traits that make our hard skills go further!

For some examples of soft skills, we thought it would be interesting to see what the top soft skills employers are looking for.  According to a 2021 survey of recruiters, dependability, teamwork/collaboration, problem-solving, and flexibility topped the list.  Interestingly enough, critical thinking, communication, and creativity were the most difficult skills to find in a candidate.

Some other examples of soft skills include:

  • Conflict management
  • Active listening skills
  • Time management
  • Empathy
  • Organization
  • Persuasion
  • Openness to criticism
  • Open-mindedness
  • Self-awareness
  • Teaching skills

Which soft skills are most important for interpreters?

We asked our followers on social media which are the most important soft skills for interpreters and it turns out a lot of interpreters felt these skills varied based on the medium of interpretation (VRI, OPI, in-person), the mode of interpretation (consecutive vs. simultaneous), and even the interpreting discipline (medical, legal, educational, etc.). Nonetheless, the top 5 top soft skills ranked were: active listening, patience, conflict management, empathy, and openness to criticism.

The top 5 soft skills for interpreters as ranked by our followers on social media.
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Active listening

It’s hard to disagree that this is an incredibly important skill for interpreters! Unless we’re actively paying attention to the message in the source language, we really won’t be able to accurately render our interpretation into the target language. Active listening can mean different things in different contexts, such as in the field of social work, in which the act of reflecting, or paraphrasing what the person said, is a key component. However, this differs from interpreting, in which we really must pay attention to every single word and be able to interpret it into another language accurately and completely. So some of the suggestions in courses or articles about active listening may not be applicable to interpreting. Some interpreters think active listening is also a hard skill for consecutive interpretation, what do you think?

Patience

How many times have you been listening intently to someone’s response to a question as you’re interpreting, only for that person to go off on a tangent and do anything but answer the question? You know you still have to interpret accurately and completely, and patience is key, especially if the person asking the question gets frustrated with you, the interpreter. How many times have you had to wait on the line for the person you’re interpreting for to return, or in a waiting room for the people you’re interpreting for to show up? Patience is a virtue, as the saying goes, and certainly serves us interpreters well in those instances in which we have to do a whole lot of waiting!

Conflict Management

Sometimes when interpreting, things can get tense. While it’s not really within our role to be a referee during conflicts we may be interpreting, it’s important to have good conflict management skills to avoid escalating an already tense situation. As an interpreter, managing the flow of communication during routine occurrences can even result in conflict if we’re not careful! Oftentimes, due to misunderstandings surrounding our role as an interpreter, people will ask us to do things we can’t do, and simply just informing them that this lies outside of our role can potentially be a source of conflict.

Empathy

What is interpreting if not walking in someone else’s shoes through their words? Their tone of voice? While it may not be protocol in spoken language interpretation, in sign language interpretation facial expressions and gestures form a key part of interpretations as well. One might even be able to argue that accuracy in interpretation is empathy in disguise. Oftentimes we’re interpreting in first person, as if we are the person whose words we just heard. In this way, interpreting can sometimes feel a bit like we’re engaging in method acting, in which we identify emotionally with the person we’re interpreting for. Just as empathy can be a sort of “symptom” of interpreting accurately, so too can improving our empathy enhance the accuracy of our interpretations.

Openness to Criticism

We all make mistakes, and when our mistakes as interpreters can potentially have a huge impact on people’s lives, it’s incredibly important to own up to them as a professional interpreter. But some of the most valuable insight into our mistakes comes from other people, whether it be our colleagues, consumers of interpretation services, or anyone we may interact with in our role as an interpreter. As such, it’s important to not only engage in self-reflection and be truly honest with yourself about your strengths and shortcomings, but also be readily accepting of genuine feedback from others (positive or negative). Constructive criticism can be one of the most valuable contributions to our professional development as interpreters.

Can soft skills be improved?

Soft skills are sometimes referred to as “character traits” or “personality traits.” This might make it seem like they’re set in stone, as if they’re just part of who you are. It might make you wonder if there’s really anything you can do if you’re looking to improve your soft skills as an interpreter. Even if some soft skills may be considered personality traits, the fact is that we’re always growing and changing as individuals. And just as we evolve over time in our personal lives, so too do we evolve in our professional lives as interpreters.

Change is the law of life. And those who look only to the past or present are certain to miss the future.

– John F. Kennedy –

So, to cut a long story short, it’s not unreasonable to strive to improve your mastery of soft skills. As we always say: you can do it if you set your mind to it! But the question remains: how exactly do you level up your soft skills? While there are certainly courses, classes, books, and other materials to help you improve your hard skills, is improving your soft skills just as straightforward? You might be surprised to find out that there are certainly similarities between these two areas of professional development for interpreters.

Step 1: Self-Inventory

The first step in improving your soft skills is focusing on identifying your strengths and areas of improvement. The thing is, you have to know exactly where you’re starting from! Who knows? You could have mastery of those top 5 soft skills for interpreters we just mentioned, but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t room for growth. Or, you might have seen the first item in our list and thought to yourself, “Wow, I really need to work on my listening skills.” Instead of being discouraged by these bits of insight, consider them as helpful clues into how you can really elevate the level of service you provide to people who rely on interpreters.

If you think about it, this is really a journey of self-discovery and getting to know yourself better, which is why we really love the idea of journaling for interpreters. If you dedicate just a little bit of time every day to sit and reflect, you might be surprised at what you’re able to come up with! Here are some ideas of some journal prompts to really get to the heart of the matter:

  • What was your biggest challenge of the day? What were the contributing factors? Was there anything you could have done to prevent it? How did you handle it? What skills did you use or could you have used to prevent it or handle it better? Divide these skills up into hard skills and soft skills.
  • What was your biggest success of the day? What contributed to this success in terms of your skills? Divide these skills up into hard skills and soft skills. But don’t stop there! Consider what skills you could have incorporated that would have taken that success to the next level.
  • Come up with a list of soft skills that you think are integral to being a successful interpreter (you can even use the lists in this article as a starting point). Now, think back on your day and jot down any moments you had to put those soft skills to good use. How was your execution? What could you have done differently in those situations? Bonus: you can reuse the list of soft skills you came up with in this step to repeat this prompt another day!

Additionally, instead of just waiting around for people to give you feedback, which is an excellent way to get a different perspective on your strengths and areas of improvement, you might be able to ask for feedback instead. Sometimes, just making it known that you’re dedicated to improving your skills will help people to feel more comfortable giving you their thoughts on your performance. Something as simple as, “I’d love to hear your feedback if you have any, I’m really trying to focus on my areas of improvement,” can do the trick.

Also, don’t be afraid to step outside of your comfort zone. It’s natural if you’re doing the same things over and over again in the same settings with the same people for you to feel comfortable, or even wind up acting on autopilot. But only when we expose ourselves to new experiences and new challenges do we really have to have to come face-to-face with areas of improvement we may have otherwise overlooked. Try to practice a mode of interpretation (such as simultaneous) that you may not typically engage in. Consider taking on a new type of assignment that you have the training for, but haven’t quite mustered up the courage to dive into. These new experiences and challenges will open your eyes up to a whole new angle, not only in terms of your hard skills, but your soft skills as well.

Step 2: Education & Training

Now that you have a better idea of the soft skills (and maybe even some hard skills) that you need to improve upon, you have a good starting point when you look for education and training geared towards improving them. What types of resources you’ll be looking for will really depend on which soft skill you’re trying to work on, but at the end of this article, we’ll be listing some suggestions here for the top soft skills for interpreters mentioned in this article.

The best types of materials to look for are those specific to the field of interpreting, because some of these skills may look different in different contexts. Continuing education courses for interpreters are a good bet, but it may be beneficial to find trainings that mention specific soft skills in the course description. Then, if a training mentions a specific strategy or resource, you can investigate it further.

Step 3: Practice

It’s no secret that practice makes perfect, so it should come as no surprise that after learning more about the particular soft skills you’d like to work on, you should put them into practice. It’s very important to not limit yourself to using or practicing your newly-acquired soft skills only when you’re actively on the job. Unlike some of the hard skills essential to interpreting that are not as transferable or applicable in other areas, such as knowledge of specialized terminology or sight translation skills, most soft skills are universally applicable! This means that they’re not only extremely useful, but that you should have many opportunities in any given day to test them out.

An infographic on how to level up your soft skills. You can share it on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, or LinkedIn!

Where to Learn More About Soft Skills for Interpreters

It’s important to remember that soft skill mastery isn’t just about honing one or two skills in isolation, it’s about the whole package, and all the bits and pieces working together. This is why Step 3 of the processed we outlined is so crucial, because it focuses on the practical application of these skills in a variety of situations. If you’re looking to become more well-rounded in your mastery of soft skills for interpreters, we have great resources at InterpreMed that can help you in your journey:

If you haven’t heard of InterpreMed’s Medical Interpreting Ethics Club, you’re in for a treat! The ethics club meets monthly to discuss ethical challenges and scenarios, delving into unique topics and uncharted territory in a collaborative interpreter-focused learning environment. But oftentimes, the way we handle these ethical dilemmas involves a solid command of nearly all of the soft skills mentioned in this article. Many of our planned topics for the rest of 2022 have a heavy focus in soft skills development. Meetings are open to all members of InterpreMed, and recordings of all our past meetings, as well as access to our ethical scenarios library is available to all Pro, Master + Memory Club, and + Memory Club members.

Communication Flow Management for Remote Medical Interpreters is a 4-hour workshop (approved for CEUs) in which Nanyi Mateo (InterpreMed’s founder) covers intervention strategies to facilitate transparent and efficient communication between patients and providers in remote medical settings. In this workshop you’ll be analyzing real-life interpreting scenarios, going over the different ethical, technical, and linguistic issues that prevent the smooth flow of communication, and will be offered practical solutions such as scripting and rapport-building. This webinar is specifically designed to equip remote interpreters with the soft-skills needed to integrate themselves successfully into the medical encounter.

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