CEO People Alchemy Ltd
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Why are soft skills important?

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21st Nov 2012
CEO People Alchemy Ltd
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How are you feeling today? Paul Matthews explores the link between emotion and soft skills.
We start learning soft skills from almost the day we are born. Within a short while, we are successfully managing our parents. Some would even say manipulating them with tantrums and smiles, and crying and giggles to get them to do what we want.
This becomes more calculated as we assert our authority and newfound independent egos during the terrible twos. Most people get more and more skilled at relationships as they grow, and learn, and experience life.
That is not to say we are all experts in soft skills as we enter the workforce – far from it. The range of expertise varies immensely, but all of us have an already amazing level of skill that allows us to function within society. This foundation of skill is often forgotten as people are assessed when they get into the workplace.
 
"People don't really know how well they communicate, or motivate others, or empathise because they don't think about how they do what they do."
One reason for the variety of soft skills expertise is the variation of stimulus and interaction experienced by people. Once we reach a level of expertise that is sufficient for our needs, developing further skills slows down or almost stops. What we do resides in unconscious competence, so we are pretty much unaware of how we do what we do.
If a new situation arises that we have not faced before, e.g. first romantic love, first job interview, then we go back to learning, and develop new soft skills to add to our existing repertoire.
This unconscious competence is one of the issues with soft skills. People don't really know how well they communicate, or motivate others, or empathise because they don't think about how they do what they do. It is a bit like asking people how well they drive. 85% of drivers will say they are better than average drivers, and yet that figure can't be right. It is the same with soft skills. Many people have an inflated view of their own soft skills competence. People don't know what they don't know.
I remember speaking with my father many years ago when he had just done an advanced driving course as part of getting a special license so he could drive the local school bus in case the regular driver was not available. He was amazed at some of the things he learnt that he had never even considered. Some of those things stick with me to this day, and I use them regularly when driving. For example, if you are stopped in the middle of the road waiting to turn right you should keep your front wheels pointing ahead rather than pointing right ready for the turn. The reason is that if another car shunts you from behind you will be pushed straight ahead rather than pushed into the path of the oncoming traffic.
Just like my father had his awareness expanded about driving, how can you expand the awareness of people so they realise they have useful things to learn regarding their soft skills?
 
"...one tip that can help people become more self-aware (an essential component of soft skills) is 'take the labels off your feelings'. If you don't like the way you're feeling, ask yourself: 'How do I know I'm feeling that?'"
Perhaps one way is what happened to me when my father told me some key tips. Deliver to people short practical things to do differently that are memorable and 'make sense'. Especially things they may never have considered before.
For example, one tip that can help people become more self-aware (an essential component of soft skills) is 'take the labels off your feelings'. If you don't like the way you're feeling, ask yourself: 'How do I know I'm feeling that?' Forget the label that you've given the emotion – sadness, anxiety or whatever – what are the physical sensations and where in your body are they? How intense are they? Are they constant or do they change? After doing this for a couple of minutes, you will probably feel different, and then you may choose to give the feeling a different label.
What do you think you will remember after reading this feature? What will you do with what you remember? Interesting questions aren’t they?
Paul Matthews is the founder of People Alchemy and expert in workplace learning, especially informal learning, as well as management development and employee performance support. He blogs at www.peoplealchemy.co.uk/blog

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