Why are soft skills so hard?

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27 January 2022
Written by Speak First Linked-in icon

Why are soft skills so hard?We're delighted to share a blog by guest writer and trainer, David White.

I took 18 years and 15 minutes to learn to ride a bike. 18 years to get used to the idea that I could, and 15 minutes on a bike finally learning to ride.

And that’s the difference between soft and hard skills.

Hard skills are job-specific abilities that we learn through education or hands-on experience. They include the technical challenges of riding a bike, baking a cake, or creating a spreadsheet analysis. They all look hard, but once your mind and body have learned the skills, you can follow the formula – the strict sequence of actions - and it will (nearly) always work.

Soft skills are non-technical skills that relate to how we think and operate. They include how we interact with others, how we approach problems and manage ourselves - and our work. They’re easy to label but much harder to really learn and assimilate into our day-to-day behaviour. And even then, they don’t always work.

Now there is a body of knowledge and skills for soft skills. I believe in them and teach them with real commitment and enthusiasm. But I’m always surprised by how hard people find it to use these techniques – and that includes me too.

The good news is that I think I’ve finally found out the reasons. The even better news is that there are only three of them. What are they – and how can we overcome them?


Number 1: There is no one right answer

Let’s illustrate this one with the toughest soft skills of them all – leadership. There are more books written about this subject than almost any other management skill. And guess what: they are all say something different. Some favour a strong commanding directing style, others an affiliative team-based approach. They can’t all be right.

If we can’t agree on the theories, you’d think we’d be able to learn from famously successful leaders. But even if you narrow your focus to a specific industry and time and then try to compare the leaders it doesn’t get easier. Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Michael Dell and Elon Musk, exhibit such big differences it’s hard to know whose example to follow. You’d think they would be similar - but they’re not.

And that points to the answer. You don’t have to follow a single set of rules, instead you can choose what fits best and you can bring your own style to bear on each challenge you face. The concept of ‘situational’ leadership says to use the approach that best fits an individual's stage of development for a specific task – there is never only one right answer. And that’s a relief because there’s never only one question.


Number 2: It’s hard to know what you’re doing wrong

Why are we often the last to know our soft skills have served us badly? With technical skills it’s different. Try out a new piece of software and you’ll soon be asking for help. How often do we end up frustrated and wishing we’d gone on that training course? Thank goodness for Google – it helps us find someone who can give us the technical help.

But with soft skills we don’t run into simple dead ends, instead we get lost in a maze. So, we can carry on regardless, without even realising what a mess we’re making of things. You only have to look at disastrous decisions, gross failures of self-discipline and career-ending emails by previously successful people. They show that even the most gifted people have no idea they’re about to take a wrong turn, until they’ve done so. And even then, they’ll often deny their own failings.

This is true of soft skills at all levels. We’ve all squandered our time and resources, failed to build vital relationships and missed obvious opportunities – while taking others that have led us to disaster.

Fixing this problem is all about improving self-awareness. How can we do that? Very simple, never assume that what you did last time will work again. And if you can afford to take a moment to pause, consider your options and reflect before taking action. This may mean seeking ideas and feedback from others, which takes us on to our last problem.


Number 3: People don’t give you the feedback you need

Just as it’s hard to see your own mistakes, others can’t necessarily see them either. How many of us fall into line with the team strategy, only to regret falling for ‘groupthink’ when the terrible results leave us shaking our heads at our own passivity?

Yet plenty of people observing us do realise what we’re doing wrong, but don’t tell us. Why not? They might be people who work for us, but they can just as easily be colleagues, friends and family. Their failure to speak up until it’s too late says something about their own soft skills. Maybe they don’t want to hurt our feelings, maybe they lack the courage to challenge, or perhaps they respect our position and don’t feel it is their place. Airlines have a word for this - ‘Captainitis,’ a term which refers less to the tendency of a team leader to assume all problem-solving responsibilities, than the tendency of team members to opt out of the responsibilities that should be theirs.

But in some cases, people do risk giving the feedback. This would be great if only our lack of soft skills didn’t mean that we’re too proud or pig-headed to accept it. In the worst case, we don’t just reject the feedback, we also reject the person giving it. Constructive feedback is sometimes rather ‘tough love.’

The only thing we have to learn to solve problem number three is to welcome and accept feedback. Be brave, ask for it and take it seriously. Motivational, positive feedback spurs more effort. Developmental, critical feedback improves our self-awareness and make us think again.


So, we need to remember that there’s never only one right answer, our first thoughts are best challenged by ourselves, and it never hurts to seek feedback from others. In other words, this all boils down to developing our own unique style and skills. Just as we said no two leaders are the same, no two learners are the same. When I teach soft skills, I make sure to tailor it to the people in the group – their experiences and personal style and attitudes. When you’re using your soft skills, remember to focus on what works for you, not what worked for anyone else.

To find out more about how we can create learning solutions carefully tailored for your people, click here.