There is Nothing Soft about "Soft Skills"

Ever since I began to work in the business world, the term “soft skills” always felt off to me. The more I come to appreciate the complexity of human dynamics, the more off it feels. In my experience, there is nothing soft or easy about mastering people skills. In fact, when I look around, especially in the workplace, clear and effective communication seems rare. Yet, use of the term “soft skills” is still prevalent. We wonder why?  Things change.  Knowledge grows and we reach new levels of understanding about how things work. The language we use usually reflects that (though it takes time).  But not “soft skills.”  
Let’s explore this a bit.  First, let’s define what people mean when they refer to soft skills. Yes, it’s a common reference used to describe non-technological or unquantifiable skills. But why was the term coined in the first place?  What was the first “coiner” trying to say?

There is nothing soft about human communication. It is deep and complex. Big advances in neuroscience have revealed  more and more fascinating insights about how and why humans communicate.   But those findings raise even greater questions, especially for those in the “management” of human beings.  When we communicate we bring our entire history to bear on the moment of our communication. No communication happens in a vacuum. Each one of us is a product of a history and multiple cultural influences that are shaping our communication.  The more we learn about the brain (the “driver” of communication) the more we understand that our communication is a product of both our hard-wired neural networks and an amazing “plasticity” that allows for spontaneous experience at the same time.  Yet, in business, we still refer to this wonderment as “soft.”  Old habits die-hard.  And the business world still seems resistant to the undeniable fact that the brain is first and foremost – a social brain.  

Most of the business world is still organized on the principle that a job is essentially an economic transaction.   Our organizational structures and management practices reflect that core belief and continue to organize the “human side” of business along those lines. Creating organizational systems using badly outdated knowledge is profoundly misinformed when we are living in an era of ground-breaking neurological research into the purpose and motivation of human behavior.   Very few of us were raised with an understanding of  how human beings “work.” Our knowledge of the world – and ourselves – is conditioned by our families,  caregivers and an educational system that may teach biology 101, but rarely gets to how the brain works. 

How Curious Are We About Ourselves?

In school we learn about math, science, languages, social studies and other “electives,” but only a tiny fraction of us learn anything about human relations.   We’re conditioned to emotional responses but learn little about the nuances of our own mental and emotional lives. Most experts agree that while there has been progress in the last twenty years, there is still a stigma in most cultures against mental illness. Unfortunately, this stigma not only prevents those struggling with mental issues from getting quality treatment, but it also reinforces old beliefs about understanding normal emotional functions. 

 A few of us study “psychology” as an academic pursuit – and  some of us seek out the experience of counselors or therapists, usually precipitated by crisis. Managing our own internal needs and complexity is left to the bits and pieces we pick up from family, peers, society and the media.  Somehow, we think, it will all just work out. Most of us are not averse to learning – we attend universities, learn languages, train in technologies, learn to cook, swim, sail, fly, dance, sing, get coached in sports, play instruments and acquire dozens of new skills throughout our adult lives.  But when it comes to our own inner world and how it relates to others (including our partners and families) most of us just don’t seem that interested or motivated.

 “Soft” Skills are Competencies

There is hope. In the past few years, many of the so-called soft skills have been recognized as competencies. Competencies are those definable qualities and skills that are identified as desirable or even necessary to fulfill a job or professional function.  I’d  assert that the entire array of competencies required to successfully understand and manage others to achieve their highest potential and performance should be desired and required for every job – at every level – in a thriving, high-achieving global economy. 

 Unfortunately, too many business leaders still believe these skills are expendable.  In a tight or uncertain economy, the first budget cuts are those that help to  develop these competencies.  The competencies that are needed in today’s challenging business climate are backed by science.  There’s nothing soft about them – or the need to develop and sustain them.  In an era of constant change and challenges, there is nothing soft about developing the ability to stay calm, clear and focused.  There’s nothing soft about earning the respect and trust of the team you lead or work with, despite a barrage of challenges. There’s nothing soft about being able to skillfully provide the conditions for people to self-motivate when they are confronting regular disappointments and setbacks.

 If we are going to successfully navigate the waters of  structural change in this economy – developing the basic competencies of self-knowledge and understanding of human relations all seem – pretty basic.

The Basics

  • Self – Awareness.  Basic operating manual of self
  • Awareness of others. Recently termed “social intelligence” it is the  understanding of the differences in the thinking, feelings and behavior of others – appreciating that we all want meaning in our lives but seek it out in diverse ways.
  • Brain & Psych 101.    You don’t have to get a PhD to improve your people skills – but you do need to acquire a basic knowledge of how your brain works – and how it drives everything you do.
  • Emotional Literacy – in some circles, the big, dark still – taboo elephant in the room – feelings.  The development of emotional intelligence is the bright light that’s gone on in the past decade. The brain not only has an emotional “side,” it’s the gatekeeper.
  • Understanding your own intentions and motivation – how they work in your life and how they impact others.  This basic knowledge is fundamental to all workplace interactions.  Yet, we still handle people in ways that place them in “threat” postures and expect them to perform at their best.

I would be willing to bet that if I asked you to grade your colleagues in the “basics,” there wouldn’t be too many A’s in the mix. How would you grade yourself?  There is nothing soft about soft skills – and it’s time that business starts recognizing that value.

Thanks for reading.
Louise Altman, Intentional Communication Consultants

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