This post was originally published by Evan Wible on lessonly.com.
Have you ever wondered why soft skills matter? Even the phrase alone, soft skills, presents an underwhelming picture. In fact, put the word “soft” in front of just about anything other word and it reduces the impact of the phrase. The word hardball? I think of an aggressive, win-at-all costs approach. Softball? Sunday night beer leagues and guys trying to relive their high school glory days.
Despite that, I passionately believe that soft skills are not only important, but necessary, for employees to succeed in the modern workplace. And, for the record, I play softball every Monday night and I’m pretty passionate about that too.
Before I get too deep into the importance of soft skills, let’s start by defining what soft skills are. Depending on where you look, you might find slightly different definitions. They all contain a core element—soft skills are skills that contribute value to any role or position.
Let’s keep the softball thread going. On Monday nights, I typically play left field and bat lead-off. Part of the reason I have those roles on our team is because I have the “technical skills” to play those roles well. But as good as I am at hitting the ball and getting on base, those technical skills bring no value to my role as a product manager here at Lessonly. However, my weekly softball games have helped me hone my skill in communicating with teammates and I get to use those soft skills in the workplace on a daily basis. Communication, along with teamwork, critical thinking, conflict resolution, and even empathy, are all soft skills. In a sense, they’re the grease that makes everything else in a business, or a softball team, run more smoothly.
Now if we acknowledge that soft skills are important for employees, what about soft skills training? It’s not quite as simple as just grabbing a list of soft skills training topics off the internet and building a bunch of training manuals. In my experience, there are three types of soft skills training methods, each building upon one another.
3 soft skills training methods
First, give your employees opportunities to participate in new, unfamiliar situations. Recently, I joined one of our account managers on a call with a customer. I was on the call to solicit some product feedback, but before we were able to discuss the product, the account manager had to have a discussion with the customer about their contract. Contract discussions can be uncomfortable, and they’re not conversations that I typically have in my role as a product manager. But during this call, I was given the chance to observe what it looked like to professionally, empathetically, and transparently have a hard conversation. As much as the conversation made me squirm, I’m grateful for the chance I was given to see a hard conversation handled well. Now, I can attempt to handle my hard conversations with an equivalent level of skill.
The second method is essentially the same as the first, but artificially created—it’s role play. For example, if you’re planning to hold a soft skills training for managers on conflict resolution, it probably won’t be possible to drop your managers into a real-life conflict scenario. Instead, you can use role play to mimic a particular scenario, on-demand and in a risk-free environment.
Lastly, work to pair both role plays and unfamiliar situations with repetitive teaching and practice. Like many things, I believe that soft skills are best learned through experience and repetition, rather than simple teaching. As a kid, my dad taught me how to swing a baseball bat. He showed me the correct stance, how to keep my back elbow up, how to grip the bat, and how to swing level. But simply knowing all those things didn’t suddenly turn me into a good hitter. I only became the softball star I am because I practiced a lot and played in a bunch of games. That said, the training my dad offered accelerated my learning curve and allowed me to learn from the experiences of someone with a lot more expertise than me.
Beyond the basics
Here’s another way to think about soft skills training for employees. Even though any technical skills learned during these experiences may fade, the soft skills are likely to stick around. If you’re still wondering how to improve soft skills amongst your team, I’d suggest teaching them best practices (Lessonly lessons are great for this!), putting them into unfamiliar scenarios where they can observe, and then give them opportunities to role play and practice what they’ve learned. And then repeat! Over time, their soft skills will grow, positively impacting their work and their lives outside the office.