'Soft skills' has become one of those much maligned phrases that signifies all that is trite about corporate America. But does the tacky name mean the skills themselves have also past their expiration date? Whatever we call them, learning a few can change your life.
The military coined the term ‘soft skills’ to differentiate from the ‘hard skills’ required to run a machine, AKA ‘hardware’ like guns, computers, and equipment. In that context, it follows that non-equipment-based skills became known as ‘soft skills.’
They did not mean ‘soft’ as in comfy, or easy, or fluffy. They were actually necessary, and difficult, and desired. But fast forward a few decades, and the modern professional context has warped this meaning so much that we now regard these essential skills as the fluffy extras to whatever are the essential hardcore work skills.
Maybe we would feel better if ‘soft’ skills referred to their effective counterpoint to hard problems. But, alas, ‘soft’ evokes pictures of pillows and clouds, and makes it seem those skills are equally ethereal. So what can we call them that gets to the core of just how useful they can be?
These important skills around decision making, motivation, problem solving, leadership, time, and more do the hard work of connecting us as people, so here’s why I’m all on board to rebrand them as human skills.
1 - Getting to know others
When we think of empathy, some of us conjure pictures of Star Trek aliens with empathic abilities, others think of sympathetic or compassionate people they know. Many explain it as “putting yourself in someone else’s shoes.” None of these capture the true essence of empathy.
A truly empathic person can see the world through other people’s filters. They understand how the other person feels and why they feel that way, without necessarily agreeing or sympathising. When developed as a skill it can almost feel like a superpower.
Empathy is neither good nor bad, as the most empathetic people on the planet are often con artists. Empathy helps us understand others; what we do with that knowledge is completely up to us.
2 - Getting to know ourselves
Ever meet someone who just feels genuine? They talk and you feel you know them, their motivations, and their intent. People like this can often disarm others to great effect. This power comes from self-awareness.
There’s a trick to it: before we can feel comfortable being ourselves we have to get to know ourselves. We often do not reflect on our own personality, motivations and actions, however we spend a lot of time criticising others for theirs. The simple act of getting to know and accepting our true selves can unlock a shedload of communication skills.
When talking, we spend a lot of time layering on white lies, hiding potential embarrassments, and covering up perceived flaws. We start to rely on clichés, tautologies and catch phrases to make communication feel easier. In effect, each of these methods reduces understanding and trust, creating barriers.
Improving the individual, improves the team.
A self-aware person can rely on transparency, display vulnerability, and exude calm confidence. These attributes make listeners follow, believe, and respect.
3- Getting to know our brain
Our brains are trapped in our skulls. Their only idea of the world comes through our senses: the five we commonly talk about, and the many others such as sense of self, time, direction, and orientation.
Our brain processes these inputs to create a model of the world in our minds. This model drives our actions, decisions, and emotions, effectively determining the life that we live. Yet how many of us spend time thinking about how this happens? When was the last time you thought about how you think?
Some people spend time learning how they learn new things, talking about how to break down complex ideas, and contemplating how their memory works. These people learn faster and remember more. They assess situations more quickly and deeply, leading to better decisions. They change their minds more often, creating a stronger sense of self and better relationships with others.
Knowing how our own brains work, how we process the world and what filters we have in place can improve both our perception of the world and our ability to live successfully in it.
Empathy. Self-awareness. Thinking. We can all learn these and other human skills. Our genetics and upbringing do not dictate our ability to improve these horizontal skills that can change every area of our lives.
I was not always sure this was possible. Over the last 20 years of training professional teams, I found developing these abilities not just possible but absolutely necessary for creating great organisations. Improving the individual, improves the team.
I always wanted to figure out how to measure improvement in these human skills. I finally figured out how, which led to building Empath, Sesh’s human skill training platform - an artificial intelligence-driven tool to develop human skills in anyone and objectively track progress over time. Empath focuses on the skills that do not get taught in school but are the ones that determine who gets hired, promoted, funded and believed.
So many human skills exist that have profound effects on our professional and personal lives. As long as you have humans doing the hard work - you need to prioritise these skills to flourish. Soft skills might have an image problem but they’ve never been more needed.