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Rethinking Soft Skills

Not really soft, and more than skills

ONE LOOK AT the place setting before me told me I was in big trouble.

Nightmare on sorority row

I was a college freshman tagging along with Danny, a senior, representing the Sigma Chi fraternity on a visit to the Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority house. I’m not suggesting I was a country bumpkin. My parents had taken me and my brothers to nice restaurants, and we were taught basic table manners. But formal dining at the Kappa house was way beyond my training. There were forks next to forks, spoons next to spoons, and some things I had never seen before. They were arranged in precise dimensions every which way around the dinner plate.

At the head table sat the scariest looking woman I’ve ever seen, the House Mother. She reminded me of a huge bulldog, and she was staring disapprovingly at Danny and me.

My sharp navy blazer began to feel rather warm, and the tie around my collar seemed to grow tighter by the minute.

Some signal was given and the sorority sisters began to eat. “What’s this thing?” I whispered to Danny.

“That’s a demitasse spoon,” he whispered back. I surveyed the chicken, green beans, potatoes, and garnishes on my dinner plate, and at the salad and rolls beside it, and wondered which of them was “demitasse” in French. Whichever it was, this spoon didn’t seem very practical.

My parents had given me some good advice for a time like this: “If you don’t know what to do, watch the others, and do what they do.” That helped me get through it. I’m sure the food was delicious, but it didn’t register. I was too worried about figuring out which utensil to use for what, when.

I was so uptight about showing that I had good manners that I hardly noticed the hundred attractive women around me, and I never remembered anything anyone talked about. My concentration was on myself. My experience would have been a lot more comfortable if I had known how the famous Emily Post defined good manners. She said,

“Manners are a sensitive awareness of the feelings of others. If you have that awareness, you have good manners, no matter what fork you use.”

I thought manners were purely about mechanics; about doing all the right things. But here’s the expert in the field saying that manners are about being respectful and considerate of others’ feelings. Worrying about mechanics had me thinking about myself, but genuine manners lead you to concentrate on other people.

Are “soft skills” really soft?

I sometimes think back on my visit to the Kappa house when I hear people in business talking about “soft skills.” First of all, what does it mean?

According to Wikipedia, soft skills is “a sociological term relating to a person’s ‘EQ’ (Emotional Intelligence Quotient), the cluster of personality traits, social graces, communication, language, personal habits, friendliness, and optimism that characterize relationships with other people.” It goes on to say that soft skills “complement hard skills (part of a person’s IQ), which are the occupational requirements of a job and many other activities” — which, you have to admit, sounds much more impressive than skills described as “soft”!

Sometimes negotiating, decision-making, and problem-solving are included as soft skills, and they clearly are crucial elements of achieving in the business world. More often, what people mean by soft skills is something akin to “communicating with, and getting along with, people.”

Soft skills are typically downplayed in the bottom-line business world. Many hard-bitten businesspersons sneer at soft skills and blow them off. Maybe if you do some kind of work where you don’t have to interact with any human beings, you can get by with that attitude. For the vast majority of us, however, the ability to build and cultivate healthy relationships with people is possibly the most important indicator of future success.

Keith Ferrazzi came from a small-town, blue-collar background, yet worked his way through Harvard Business School. In his book, Never Eat Alone, he writes of the intimidation he first felt among the driven number-crunchers at Harvard. But that changed:

“I came to realize that first semester at business school that Harvard’s hyper-competitive, individualistic students had it all wrong. Success in any field, but especially in business, is about working with people, not against them. No tabulation of dollars and cents can account for one immutable fact: Business is a human enterprise, driven and determined by people.”

Ferrazzi eventually founded his own company and developed a worldwide network of friends and contacts. He writes,

“After two decades of successfully applying the power of relationships in my own life and career, I’ve come to believe that connecting is one of the most important business — and life — skill sets you’ll ever learn. Why? Because, flat out, people do business with people they know and like.”

I believe Ferrazzi’s phrase “people do business with people they know and like” applies both outside and inside one’s company; in other words, not just with customers or clients, but also with peers and coworkers.

When Keith Ferrazzi talks about building a world-wide network of friends and contacts and about the impact of those relationships on his business success, soft skills sound like anything but soft. Anyone who thinks that in this world you can be successful no matter how you treat or relate to people is incredibly foolish. Just in terms of the bottom line, it may be the most important thing you do.

Are “soft skills” really skills?

I don’t really like the term at all, but “soft skills” is too well-established in current usage to fight. Still, I’d like to issue a caution. To me the more problematic part of the term is not “soft,” but “skills.”

The ability to get along well with others does involve characteristics that rightly can be called skills. As with any skill, you can get better at cultivating human relationships with practice, and coaching is often helpful to gain awareness and insight. I believe in the value of coaching; after all, that’s what I do. But there’s a dark side, too.

If you lump things like communication, relating, listening, persuading, serving and building positive relationships into the category of “skills,” you risk conceiving of them as mere mechanics; techniques to apply correctly, like my manners at the sorority house. Yes, sometimes that can be useful.

Some people do need coaching on the mechanics of communicating positively with others, but that’s remedial work ─ damage control, a process to help those who can’t see what to do on their own. The danger is that it can degenerate into insincere techniques to manipulate. Emphasizing the “skills” in soft skills can lead to concentrating on self rather than others; on procedures rather than people.

People with right attitudes don’t need mechanics as a crutch. They just need occasional prompts to slow down, and reminders that the people around them are absolutely essential to their success.

Emily Post was right: Good manners are a sensitive awareness of the feelings of others. Treating people properly is a value, not a technique; a lifestyle, not a performance. It’s about who you are, and who you want to be. Li

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