For most of our time on earth, we were hunters and gatherers. At first glance, those activities seem concrete or hard – navigation, gathering nutritious food, killing animals, cooking and protecting family members. If we look deeper, however, soft skills – self-awareness, patience, impulse control, empathy, altruism and collaboration – have always been the key to our survival and success.
The dominance of soft skills began before humans. According to Sir David Attenborough’s BBC documentary series “Dynasties,” lions, whales, tigers, chimpanzees and others show the same pattern. The young that survive and thrive have mothers and fathers who understood and used soft skills. Rather than survival of the fittest, in many mammals, it is survival of the soft-skilled. For humans, soft skills define success.
Globally respected biology experts such as Edward O. Wilson (“The Social Conquest of Earth”), Frans de Waal (“The Age of Empathy”), and even Charles Darwin (“The Expression of Emotion in Man and Animals”) clearly articulated how soft skills define social and survival success. In the 1990s, Daniel Goleman and other researchers showed us that emotional intelligence, or EQ, is at least twice as important as IQ and technical skill (hard skills) and, in fact, 85% of outstanding leadership is attributable to EQ. In 2018, Noah Yuval Harari’s book “21 Lessons for the 21st Century” introduced “the age of the useless class” and the imperative to accelerate soft skill development if we are to thrive in the digital future.
If you have mastered technical, or “hard,” skills, you know this truth; in fact, you probably spend most of your personal and leadership development resources on soft skills. If you are interested in your success and the success of your learners and your employees, you need the language and a personal plan to grow your soft skills.
What Are Soft Skills?
Using the right framework and language is essential. Think about your skill development within the following framework:
Physical, emotional and cognitive experience are tightly linked from body up and mind down. Inevitably, when we are disturbed by emotions – particularly anger, sadness, fear or craving – they damage our technical skill deployment as well. We need four perspectives to make sense of these interdependent skill sets: insight, mastery, empathy and influence.
Insight is the ability to identify, name and own our physical, emotional and cognitive experience. The most important starting command for a leader is to check your body, check your emotions and check your thoughts. Without these checks, we have no reference point to manage ourselves in fluid interactions. When we discover and own our posture and facial expressions, emotions and thoughts, our meta-cognition, or conscious leadership, begins to flourish. We are going through an enormous societal transformation as people become more self-aware. Don’t get left behind.
Mastery is the ability to make rapid, skillful adjustments to your body, emotions and thoughts. We communicate executive presence to others in less than a second. Stand and sit so you’re upright, but relaxed and open. When you feel like interrupting or shouting, restrain yourself, exhale and express yourself with firm respect. If you find yourself worrying, stop. If you are thinking pessimistically, use the creative discipline of looking for solutions.
Empathy is the ability to read others accurately and rapidly. Physical empathy allows us to be present and attuned to others’ physical signals. Emotional empathy allows us to read and recognize emotions. Cognitive empathy – or perspective-taking – allows us to imagine what others are thinking. Like insight, empathy is a reflective awareness. We do not have to take action – simply read and understand clearly.
Influence is the social skill of aligning and liberating the efforts of others. Threat or force is not sustainable in today’s world. It will invoke rebellion. Influence requires connection, networks, communication, collaboration, teams and vision. It is not possible without the integrated contribution of insight, mastery and empathy.
The key message here is that all of these personal and interpersonal skills can be learned. First, make sense of them. Then, explore how they might benefit you. Evaluate your current performance, define an area of improvement, and then drill it over and over until it becomes part of who you are.
How to Build Your Soft Skills
Let’s start with a simple example: When you come home in the evening, you inevitably end up in a shouting match with your teenager. She becomes upset, and you become angry and withdraw. The family is anxious. You believe that your relationship with your teenager is falling apart and that you are failing as a parent.
This is a classic soft skills blind spot. Step one is insight: How are you presenting, what are you feeling and what are you thinking? Recording a video of the event is the most powerful way to gain this insight. Reflecting honestly with another person is another way. Self-reflection is the third. Ask how your body might present, in this case, at the door to your child’s bedroom. Do you seem controlling? Judgmental? Angry? What are you feeling? What are you thinking?
When you see how you are a part of the drama, you are ready for mastery. Perhaps you could listen to a funny podcast on the way home; enter the house with enthusiastic and grateful greetings; avoid the bedroom; put on relaxed clothes; yell out warmly, “How are you? Come and say hi when you are ready!” Remind yourself how happy you are to be home, how much you love your family and that your child is a normal teenager. Be present, interested and caring. Ask if there is anything you can help her with; now, you have progressed to empathy. Once you have succeeded for a month, extend the conversation into agreeing on some standards, with clear consequences.
Remember, one careless explosion can ruin months of good relationship-building.
The same holds for work. Let’s say you have an L&D team meeting coming up. Practice with a colleague, and record the practice on video. Notice your posture, facial expressions and breathing, and correlate them with your experience. That’s insight. Now, build the better version of yourself: Sleep well, dress well, stand tall and move with energy. Cultivate positive emotion, and maintain optimistic thinking. That’s mastery. It will take multiple adjustments.
When you start the team meeting, connect with your team members first. Make checking in with each person the first agenda item. Listen with your body, your heart and your mind. Be present. Demonstrate how pleased you are to be with them and that you want this meeting to be successful for them. That’s empathy. Now, you are ready to influence the team.
In summary, soft skills are the personal and interpersonal behaviors that cultivate individual and team success. It is only recently that we have come up with a language to make sense of them. We have a way to go, but we are making progress. As you succeed, you will become healthier, happier and more successful, and difficult relationships will become more enjoyable and engaging.
- Check body, check emotion, check mind.
- Adjust body, adjust emotion, adjust mind.
- Read bodies, read emotions, read minds.
- Lead bodies, lead emotions, lead minds.
Now, go out and practice!