Developing others’ soft skills can be hard: why?

By Martin Thompson, MTa Founder

For over 30 years I’ve been working in Organisational Development working with 1000s of trainers worldwide. During 1:1 discussions it’s become clear, that many of them struggle to develop others’ ‘soft skills’ effectively. This blog considers why something that seems so simple in theory can be so tough in practice and then offers some practical solutions.

Let’s start by understanding the problem…

Every time we meet someone, we interact, both consciously and unconsciously, verbally and non-verbally. When we do this, we are using our ‘soft skills’. Our soft skills are based on our personal attitudes and mental attributes and are influenced by our emotions. Clearly this is a complex interaction and that’s without considering additional complications such as mutual respect (or lack of), prejudices and cultural differences.
Unsurprisingly, many people have spent years studying ‘how to interact with others more effectively’ and even completed PhD’s on the subject generating some useful insights. However, I’d like to explore a different route…

Taking a sideways look …

Soft skills have a unique and very important characteristic. Every person in the world starts recognising, understanding and developing soft skills from the moment they are born. This is unlike every other aspect of education and happens regardless of personal circumstances. So by the time a child goes to school, they have already experienced every soft skill. Over and over again, they have; had conversations; solved problems; made decisions; resolved conflicts; clarified objectives; planned; led and been led; worked in teams; expressed anger; and shown humiliation.

So by the time someone comes to you for training, they have already experienced everything you are going to cover. You don’t have any more experience than they do, so how can you teach them anything? How can someone benefit from you telling them about; the importance of asking questions; listening to answers; or respecting others views, when they have already done these things themselves and realised the advantages of doing them and the disadvantages of not doing them?

Well here’s how…

Experience shows, that if you give any group of people a relatively simple task on a training course, they will fail to use a wide range of soft skills that would, if used effectively, improve their performance.

When the task has been completed, an observant trainer can give the group and individuals feedback about their performance. They can point out exactly when they didn’t listen, didn’t contribute ideas or didn’t say when they disagreed with a decision etc. Some individuals or teams accept this feedback from the ‘authority figure’ without question. Others may fight back, only to be subdued by video evidence. But many individuals don’t say anything and it’s impossible to know what they’re thinking.
Trainers who use this approach provide information and can be helpful especially if they go on to tell people how they could have been more effective.
Additionally, it is likely to make trainers feel useful (all good) but this approach typifies why so many trainers struggle with soft skills. Trainers train – they like to be helpful, they give information and knowledge, they may ask questions but all too often provide answers, they take people through a course or programme efficiently and successfully…but how is ‘successfully’ measured?
Are they using an approach that is likely to provide effective ways to change attitudes and behaviour? Will the day to day use of soft skills be improved and their benefits realised?

Why aren’t soft skills being used more widely and effectively?
I’ve already pointed out that participants have soft skills, or had them in their ‘youth’ so why aren’t they being used more widely and effectively by all of us? There seem to be several possible reasons.

Commonly individuals;
+ are unaware of the potential value of using soft skills and the cost of not using them
+ do not recognise when soft skills should be used or how they can be deployed
+ have lost some of their skills through lack of practice
+ are used to others not using soft skills: it may even be seen to be ‘cool’ (particularly during teenage years) if they are ignored

This lack of use is so common in society that we are all used to getting by when others don’t use them and others not objecting when we do the same. In the main, our failings go unnoticed, never mind unchallenged: we just muddle on…but we all suffer the consequences.

The implications for trainers

If my analysis is correct, what are the implications for trainers? Quite simply, people do not need more information about or training in soft skills, but what they do need is help which runs much deeper. They need help understanding their own attitudes and approaches and a realisation of what they cost them on a daily basis.

I’m suggesting;

9 areas for us to help participants work on;
1. Recognising what is happening as and when they are working with others: the ‘here and now’.
2. Becoming aware of the impact they personally are having on others as it happens.
3. Realising the importance of simple courtesies and skills that affect how others feel and respond.
4. Appreciating that others will have different stand points and perspectives which are likely to be important to them but may not be to others: valuing diversity.
5. Accepting that in a team, each individual has personal responsibility for its success.
6. Remembering that soft skills are common sense but not common practice.
7. Valuing and revitalising the soft skills that they’ve been aware of (subconsciously?) for years.
8. Understanding which of the things they do are helpful and unhelpful and why.
9. Trying out changes in personal behaviour without fear of ridicule.

2 things from you the facilitator
Interestingly, helping in all of these 9 areas require just two things from you the facilitator:
+ Using your own soft skills to encourage participants to; think critically and constructively for themselves; think about the way they interact with others; and develop their own ideas for improvement (e.g. asking open questions, listening to and respecting answers, asking follow-on questions).
+ An engaging but non-threatening task or two that will stimulate group interaction for analysis, free and open-minded discussion and subsequent learning.

Find out more
If you want to find out more about;
+ Specific soft skills and the interactions between them, visit where you will find an interactive tool that enable you to explore a wide range of skills
+ Materials that will help you to develop others’ soft skills visit
+ Facilitating soft skill development visit