I recently led a training on how to effectively communicate in difficult situations, and the person introducing me to the participants referred to the training as focusing on “soft skills.” As I hear these words (not the first time), I feel a visceral frustration well up in my gut. These are not “soft,” in fact, they are quite hard. The skills of reading the person you are talking to, navigating emotions, experiencing empathy, communicating clearly and directly, and building trust are not easy or “soft.” In fact, the degree of difficulty is considerably higher than learning a process for communication – or the “hard” skills.
An important distinction
This is really a matter of semantics. I do not believe the person introducing me was aiming to diminish the importance of the content I was about to deliver, or to diminish the importance of the skills. What we have is a narrative that belies the importance of these skills because in fact they are much harder to learn. They are not easily repeatable, and the application of these skills changes with the context and people you are talking to. It is more difficult to learn these skills, which is why the narrative is based in fear. To say the skills are “soft” is a way to diminish them, to make the skills seem weak. This tactic of diminishing is applied when avoidance is the goal. We can teach “hard” skills because it is more straightforward – they are repeatable and knowable skills. Teaching empathy, trust, authenticity, and tolerance of ambiguity (to name a few) require more of us and demand introspection and change of the individual. It’s personal. To move away from that fear perspective, I suggest changing the narrative. Instead of “hard” and “soft” skills, let’s use the terms technical and adaptive – first coined by Ron Heifitz at Harvard University.
Technical vs. Adaptive
Technical skill refers to the how and what; the repeatable, knowable processes and best practices that can be taught, evaluated, and measured. Adaptive skill refers to the recognition of patterns and situations that change with context. These patterns inform the technical choices we make. Generally speaking, when you are dealing with people, you are working in an adaptive environment. It is not the same as writing code, designing a building, or generating a detailed project map. These skills require leaders to navigate the complexity of working with people; of knowing when and how to be empathetic, the ability to connect with people and build trust, inspire, and disrupt unhealthy patterns of behavior both in self and in others.
The difficult part is that leaders need to be aware of and apply both sets of skills at the same time. Having technical and adaptive skill requires us to pay attention to both the head space (technical) and the heart space (adaptive).
To start, can we commit to changing the narrative and language in describing these skills? Can we commit to recognizing that “soft” is a way to avoid the difficulty of learning to be adaptable and step into the unknowable? If we can change the narrative, we can then begin to acknowledge the complexity of adaptive skills and embrace the fact they are really hard.