‘Soft Skills’ or ‘Psychologically Informed’ Skills? — Why are these important in a PIE?

Dr Helen Miles
9 min readJul 6, 2023


07.07.2022: As I write this week’s PIE blog, as the Lead for Psychologically Informed Environments (PIE) at the national youth homeless charity — Centrepoint, I have had another busy couple of weeks delivering PIE and recruiting to our team (more details of our new starters soon!) However, one theme of lots of conversations that I have had around the organisation over this time has been around the concept of ‘soft skills’. As a psychologist, I have somewhat of an issue with this term, as it devalues the critical importance of these valuable skills not just in our general lives but moreover, when we are trying to work within a PIE framework in the homeless sector. ‘Soft skills’ are central to how we build relationships with others, and ‘relationships’ are the most important ‘ingredient’ of any PIE — as noted by Keats et al (2012) in their PIE Good Practice Guide (c.f. https://eprints.soton.ac.uk/340022/1/Good%2520practice%2520guide%2520-%2520%2520Psychologically%2520informed%2520services%2520for%2520homeless%2520people%2520.pdf). Therefore, I wanted to spend a few moments reflecting on the concept and importance of ‘soft skills’ in this week’s PIE blog, and to challenge readers to consider their own soft skills in terms of what they might already possess and what areas they might want to develop further in the future as we continue to develop and implement our PIE in Centrepoint.

Therefore, what are ‘soft skills’ and how might they relate to ‘hard skills’? The term ‘hard skills’ refers to the specific skills, knowledge, qualifications etc. that you possess that are critical in order that you can undertake your job role. For example, in the homeless sector on the frontline it might be that you know how to do a particular task such as completing risk assessments, or you might have an understanding of housing law or the benefits system, or you have a specific qualification in social work, psychology or youth work. In our support teams, this might mean having a particular qualification in accounting or human resources depending on your specific role. These are easier to quantify and assess, as they are ‘task or knowledge based’.

‘Soft skills’ however, relate to how you work, particularly with other people. They are those individual attributes that you have that help you interact effectively with other people. They can include interpersonal or people skills, communication skills, listening skills, time management and problem solving skills, leadership skills, collaboration skills, team working skills, or other skills such negotiation and empathy, to name just a few. The challenge is that unlike ‘hard skills’, they are often difficult to ‘teach’, but are instead often learned through life experiences and engagement with others. However, regardless of our profession, and indeed whether or not we work in a PIE, these ‘soft skills’ are extremely important for success in our professional (and personal) lives and are often valuable assets that employers look for when hiring new employees. This is because, having ‘soft skills’ not only help us build relationships and develop meaningful connections with others, but also helps us manage the stress and challenges of the modern workplace, including navigating difficult conversations and working with others more effectively.

Ultimately then, soft skills are our personality traits, behaviours and interpersonal skills that we use to interact with others and ensure we can work effectively and harmoniously with our colleagues as well as if applicable, the homeless young people we support in Centrepoint. These skills are often (and should be) transferable; in other words — if we can build relationships with the homeless young people we support, we should be able to build relationships with the members of our team or the wider organisation. Sadly, however, I have from time to time in my professional career as a psychologist, observed lots of challenging relationship dynamics between different staff in a team. Sometimes, this is the result of challenging behaviours projected by clients or service users onto teams and sometimes, it is just clashes of style or personality within teams that can be challenging to overcome. This is where team reflective practice sessions, as per a PIE, can be so helpful to explore, reflect upon and address such issues in a constructive and psychologically safe space.

As noted above, the term ‘soft skills’ actually covers a range of very important skills that arguably in a PIE, should be considered essential ‘psychologically informed’ skills rather than just a ‘nice to have’ or a bonus. I have been discussing recently with some service managers about how we create spaces in recruitment interviews to explore a candidates soft skills further. In my own experience, sometimes the best person for a job is not necessarily the best qualified ‘on paper’ but is someone that can reflect on themselves and their own experiences, and has strong interpersonal skills. Arguably, this is even more needed in frontline roles wherein the homeless young people we support can be challenging, and require strong ‘engagement’ or relationship building skills as well as a wide range of other life skills such as patience, empathy, listening and communication skills, the ability to ‘think outside the box’ to solve issues, personal resilience and lots more.

Of note, when I was undertaking some research for this blog, I found that there was little specific psychological research about the importance of soft skills in the homeless sector. Of course, they have as noted above, been highlighted as key in a PIE by Keats et al (2012) and some other authors when writing about setting up services in this area (e.g. Spinnewijn, 2019; Levesque et al, 2021). However, there is evidence from other sectors about the importance of soft skills in the workplace on outcomes such as success and earning potential as well as wider health and social life outcomes (e.g. Heckman et al, 2006; Balcar, 2014; Kaurtz et al, 2014; Touloumakos, 2020) although this research notes that one of the challenges with soft skills is accurately measuring many of them. This is one of the reasons that any evaluation of a PIE can be such a challenge — how do we effectively capture in ‘numbers’ or evidence all the non-specific positive shifts in these soft skills or psychologically informed skills happening because of staff training, support and supervision, and reflective practice? When things are working well because of our soft skills, we tend to ‘just get on with things’ in our teams. It is often only an absence of soft skills that can create issues such as conflict and grievances, or are highlighted in challenges in engaging with the homeless young people we are trying to support.

Before you read on in this blog, I will invite you to a moment to reflect on your own ‘soft skills’ — what comes to mind? What do you think you do well at? What can sometimes be more of a struggle? Be honest here — none of us is perfect and even as a psychologist with arguably highly developed soft skills, I know that I can struggle with patience and diplomacy at times! Finally, if you are really being reflective, what do you think others would say about your soft skills? If you are feeling really brave why not ask those around you who know you well? We all often have ‘blind spots’ — things we think we might do well but others would disagree!

Now you have had a moment to think about your own soft skills, what did this reflection conclude? Firstly, did you consider the wide range of soft skills? For example, adaptability, communication skills, compromise, creative thinking, dependability, empathy, inclusivity and non-judgement of others, leadership, listening, your work ethic, team work, positivity, time management, motivation in work, problem solving, critical thinking, conflict resolution, negotiation etc. There are so many highly valuable skills that we often do not recognise in ourselves and others despite their importance. Perhaps now you have a longer list, you might need to widen your concept of soft skills and re-consider what areas you do well and what areas you might need to develop further.

However, one key point that is worth highlighting — have you been kind to yourself in this reflection? Soft skills are often those skills that get lost when we are find ourselves stressed or overwhelmed. To put this another way, when we are low on our own psychological resources, we do not forget to do our ‘hard skills’ but often it is our ‘soft skills’ that can get neglected. For example, it is hard to listen well or manage difficult conversations if we are tired and it is hard to think creatively if we are stressed or in ‘threat mode’. Therefore because of the importance of our soft skills in a PIE, perhaps we need to reflect not only about what soft skills we can work on developing further in the future, but also ways in which we can look after ourselves and our well-being (c.f. see previous PIE Blog on self-care here: https://medium.com/@drhelenmiles/what-do-we-need-a-psychologically-informed-approach-to-our-well-being-at-work-65b347b8b862).

Now that we have an idea about which soft skills might be areas for development for ourselves, the bigger question is what we can do about this. There are some formal approaches such as leadership training, coaching or mentorship programmes that can help us to identify and develop our soft skills further, but these are not necessary if we are willing to be reflective and honest with ourselves and set goals to improve, perhaps with our line managers in supervision or appraisal sessions. There are also often simple things we can try out to improve or ‘practice’ our soft skills, and of course, often it is all about this practice and being willing to admit our mistakes if we do get it wrong (another soft skill!).

For example, if we can struggle sometimes to ‘listen’ to others, practicing listening really intently to others (even for short periods), trying not to interrupt and ensuring we ask for clarification so we are really clear about what has been said before ending a conversation can be a simple way to hone our listening skills. If we are not sure about how we can handle difficult conversations at work, practicing beforehand either with ourselves in a mirror (or a willing friend or family member!) can help us to think about what we want to say, how we are saying it and how it might land with the other person. Sometimes, we might be able to generate specific concrete strategies to help us with certain soft skills. For example, if our challenge is time management, then how do we become more organised perhaps with the use of lists, diaries or other aides to prompt us to manage important deadlines.

In addition, being willing to take feedback from others, rather than immediately becoming defensive, is also helpful in improving our soft skills. This is not easy, as no one likes bad news or to be criticised but viewing this as something that can be constructive as an opportunity for learning and growth rather than something negative can be useful. Moreover, perhaps they are not actually criticising everything about us, but just one thing that we might need some support to develop further. Maybe we can even ask them what we could do differently in the future in order to help us improve, because they are the ones that have identified this area for development in the first place. It is important that we can see that even if we struggle with one soft skill (e.g. problem solving), it does not mean we are no good at any ‘soft skills’ (i.e. we might be a really empathic and engaging person). Finally, an essential soft skill certainly in the homeless sector is that of patience. Therefore, learning some simple breathing techniques to manage stress and stay calm in difficult situations can be useful to manage in the moment and help us remain calm or gain perspective on a challenging situation.

In summary, this PIE blog has been considering the importance of ‘soft skills’ in a psychologically informed environment (PIE). For all of us wherever we work, and certainly, if we work in the homeless sector, these soft skills are arguably critical skills that are perhaps better considered ‘psychologically informed’ skills. They are some of the most valuable skills we bring to the workplace, yet they are often the most overlooked and undervalued. Moving forward to continue in our Centrepoint PIE journey, we need to consider how we develop these both individually and as an organisation, in order to build relationships with the homeless young people we support, work optimally with colleagues within our teams, and engage wider stakeholders to have the best possible outcomes and achieve our strategic aim to #EndYouthHomelessness by 2037.



Dr Helen Miles

Consultant Clinical & Forensic Psychologist & Head of Psychologically Informed Environments (PIE) at Centrepoint @orange_madbird