With the growth of organizations that identify their main asset as human capital, the capability of knowledge-economy workers to communicate, collaborate and lead is of heightened importance. This advancement has increased the demand for effective leadership and soft skills training, customized to the organization’s needs and, ideally, offering a relevant and personalized learning experience.

Providing learning programs that build empathy and foster emotional connections among colleagues or between employees and customers are particularly on the rise. “Design thinking has legitimized the need for empathy in making business decisions,” explains Clare Dygert, director of instructional design at SweetRush. While demonstrating empathy has always been an important area of personal and professional growth, “what’s happened now is that there’s enough of a roar that we’re hearing it,” says Dygert.

Digital learning and emerging technologies are offering new tools to teach soft skills in powerful ways; gamification, virtual and augmented reality, and simulations are just a few. Which tools are best for your learners will depend on your business needs, your learners and their learning environment, and your budget and timeline. Regardless, these trends are worth exploring as you look for new ways to surprise and delight your learners and increase motivation, focus and retention through engagement.

Gamification Encourages Learners to Think on Their Feet

One of the challenges with soft skills training – but not necessarily with technical training – is that learners feel that “we already know this stuff” (e.g., how to communicate with and serve others). After all, they do it every day. Yet, often, their skills have room to grow, both for their personal and professional advancement and for their organization to be more successful in the marketplace.

Organizations are using gamification to give learners a time constraint and approach a situation by thinking on their feet. This approach mimics the real world, where employees need to react quickly during conversations and customer interactions.

For example, imagine you are teaching your audience to spot nuances in body language when having a difficult conversation with a colleague or a client by having them clicking hot spots in an image. Using a short time period of only 10 to 20 seconds encourages focus and concentration. Building in the functionality to earn points for each spotted item can increase motivation. And adding incorrect options discourages learners from simply clicking all over the screen. These techniques, which elevate the activity from a simple “click-to-reveal” activity, serve to increase the urgency and significance of learning soft skills.

If building empathy is your objective, consider allowing learners to play roles other than their own during the game. For example, a large technology company recently used a board game to teach sales managers how to prioritize sales efforts over a four-quarter sales cycle. Each player chose and adopted a role on the sales team other than their own. An unexpected positive result was the empathy that players gained for others on the team as they considered what was important to them. This empathy fostered teamwork and leadership and added a soft skills component to the sales training.

Virtual Reality Fully Immerses Learners in Another’s Shoes

Virtual reality (VR) is a groundbreaking technology for soft skills and empathy training. “It is as close to being in the real world, having a firsthand experience, as we can possibly create,” says Mary Gannon, Ph.D., senior learning strategist at SweetRush, about VR. With this technology, learners can actually walk in the shoes of other people and experience the world through their eyes.

For example, a large hotel chain recently implemented a VR learning program to help hospitality workers feel what it’s like to be a guest experiencing a problem at a hotel. Inside the headset, learners view situations through the eyes of a guest, observing as hotel employees try to fix the problem in different ways with slight nuances. Ultimately, the learners decide whether the actions by the employee made them feel worse, the same or better about the situation. Being able to experience the problem from the guest’s perspective enables hotel workers to develop empathy for the guests. Experiencing how good it feels when the guest’s problem is dealt with in a positive way further enhances this learning experience.

By blocking out all outside distractions and offering a high-quality visual and interactive experience, VR enables learners to feel like they actually are in the moment, which can increase both learning engagement and knowledge retention.

Simulations Create “Aha!” Moments About the Complex Challenges Others Face

Online simulations have become another popular tool for building empathy. Like VR, simulations can enable learners to experience life and work from the perspective of another person. However, simulations can also include robust features that challenge learners with complex, multilayered decisions and present the consequences of those decisions, whether they’re positive or negative.

For example, a leading financial institution recently implemented a simulation to help professionals understand the challenges of owning a business. Throughout each stage of the business’ growth, beginning with the start-up phase, learners make decisions as a business owner, receiving advice from friends and colleagues along the way. Each choice impacts investors and customers, leading to a thriving or failing business. For professionals who have no experience owning their own business – and yet who have many small business owners as clients – the simulation opens their eyes to the constant and complex decisions their customers face.

Avatar Character Development Models Flaws and Growth

Avatars are by no means new to e-learning, but the new trend is that as storytelling comes to the forefront as a powerful instructional design technique, avatars are evolving through the stronger use of character development.

Here’s an example: A large food and beverage manufacturer wanted to transform an enterprise-wide leadership training program from a classroom experience to an online program without losing the emotional connection that learners experienced in the classroom. To solve this challenge, the team created a cast of relatable avatar characters with flaws and weaknesses – characters in whom learners could see themselves and their own struggles. Throughout the program, course by course, the characters learned and grew along with the learning audience, becoming almost like family.

Augmented Reality Offers New Tools to Surprise Learners

Augmented reality (AR) is typically thought of as a tool for technical training and knowledge-based learning. The classic example is holding your phone or tablet in front of an object and viewing additional information about it.

However, the possibilities for AR are wider than our initial conception of how to use this tool – if you apply some creativity and out-of-the-box thinking. That approach will yield a new kind of learning experience, one that will surprise learners and bring new levels of engagement.

For example, AR can bring the gamified body language training to life through 3D avatars. In this case, learners would point their phone at a physical card and see a “customer” (a 3D avatar) in AR. The customer avatar would then display certain body language, learners would choose the action they should take as the sales associate, and the customer avatar would respond to that action in a positive or negative way. Combined, it’s an interactive exercise with a touch of hologram, particularly engaging for younger audiences.

With a rapidly growing tool kit for soft skills training, L&D professionals have many new options for engaging learners, making powerful emotional connections, optimizing critical communication and leadership skills, and building empathy.