Nothing harder than soft skills

A landscape designer friend of mine was telling me about a client whom she had to talk out of pulling the pin on a project. Despite having the process of drainage works explained, the client freaked out when she saw her garden being dug up. She changed her mind and didn’t want to proceed. What was the designer to do?

Another friend, a CEO, was in the midst of contract negotiations with one of their biggest clients.  A group of representatives from the client were touring the site and one of their number was being particularly finicky, making the CEO’s team very defensive and annoyed. As my friend said, “It wasn’t what he said, it was the way he said it”.

There’s nothing harder than soft skills

What skills do you need to be effective in business? Well, you typically need some technical expertise that provides value, whether that’s being a landscaper designer, accountant, lawyer, baker, or candlestick maker. But these “hard skills” are not enough; you also need to have skills in relating to others – people skills. So called (annoyingly) “soft skills”.

Let’s consider then, how many hours you put into formalising your technical skills? For many of us it’s at least 13 years of schooling followed by trade or university qualifications and then years spent at the coalface of our craft.

What about your “soft skills”?  How much formal training have you had to learn how to most effectively relate to and influence others? I’m guessing not much. I’m guessing most has been informal – learning through trial, error and observation – and resting on the assumption that because we’re human, we should know how humans tick.

Now consider, how much of your day is spent on technical vs. soft skills? Where is your energy directed, and where would you like it to be?  

If you are like most of my clients, the majority of time, energy and angst is spent on people issues – the soft skills domain. Can you see the problem here? 

When faced with a real-life issue, like how to talk a client around when they are threatening to pull out, or how to respond to a prickly contract negotiation, we tend to wing it.  Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, and this uncertainty means we waste a lot of time, energy and emotion on guesswork.

No wonder we get stressed.

No wonder conversion rates are low.

No wonder the hardest thing about working is dealing with people.

It is my belief that there is nothing harder than soft skills. Think about it. Pilots have a manual to fly a plane. Where’s the manual to influence another human being?

It’s here, and it takes the form of behavioural science. A whole lot of researchers are out there probing the depths of behaviour and providing answers on what will and will not work when trying to engage and influence others.

Which gives you an opportunity. If you want to be more effective in your work, it starts and ends with formalising your soft skills. My role in this is to distil behavioural science into what it means day-to-day for you.  Want to make sure a client doesn’t get anxious and pull the pin? Let’s talk about the role of communication, expectations and assurances to overcome loss aversion. Want to unearth reasons a client is being finicky? Let’s talk about norms, the curse of knowledge and framing.

It’s not just for now. Your future depends on soft skills

Formalising your soft skills through behavioural science will not only benefit you now, your future depends on it.

The movie “Hidden Figures” tells the story of a group of women who performed calculations for space agency NASA. Recognising that IBM computers were being installed to replace their jobs, one of the women retrains her team of “human calculators” to instead work as computer programmers, elevating their skills and securing their value.

In the last 60 years the world has moved beyond IBM, of course. Now Artificial Intelligence is the technology that will replace most tasks. Just when you think your profession is safe, footage pops of a new advancement that makes your “hard skills” redundant.

Take, for example:

So where does that leave us? How can we provide value beyond that a robot can produce? Only by being an expert in relating to others. Only by being able to anticipate and address resistance. Only by having excellent behavioural soft skills.

This article also appeared in Smartcompany.

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