The silence in the room is profound. Joe sits out front with the coach who’s running the workshop. No-one moves as Joe processes the question he’s just been asked; the question that will resolve the issue he expressed. The silence seems endless, as we wait for Joe to accept the shift within himself that will move him on; to see what he needs to see to progress. (We’re all Joe really.) The coach masterfully guides him in his learning, maintaining the trust and safety on which all else depends. Joe finds what he needs. He cracks a joke to relieve the tension. We laugh.
Some people call these “soft skills.” Well, they don’t look very soft to me and they don’t feel very soft either, when you expose your own issues, doubts, fears, and – even worse – ambitions to the constructive input of an experienced coach and 25 or so fellow participants…
OK, so this is maybe a bit more extreme than the typical workplace.
Or is it?
The ability to handle challenging situations is central to leadership. As a colleague once said “the ability to relate to other people is the most critical skill a person can ever have”, and Tom Peters, for example, said recently that senior people spend almost all their time doing two things: Running meetings and dealing with people, and so relationship skills are key.
Where possible, I avoid the phrase “soft skills,” because it risks implying relationship skills are a “nice to have” and much less important than other, proper “hard” skills. What are those anyway? Professional skills, I suppose. Better to use language that’s more specific about what we want to see happen like “collaboration skills” or “ability to resolve conflict” or “relationship building.”
“Soft skills” sound like something we’ll get round to when there’s time, which there rarely is, of course.
So here’s my takeaway…
To help others value the expertise as much you do, drop “soft skills” from your vocabulary and replace it with something else.
It makes a difference.