Self-reflection, while not a soft skill, plays an important role in how we develop our soft skills over time.


Bob Graham (‘0:20’): Hello, I am Bob Graham and with me as always is Dr. Tobin Porterfield. We teach college, we research soft skills and we help our students develop these skills and have seen how they play out in a variety of work settings. We’ll show you that eye for soft skills in a second when we start talking about self reflection.

Graham (‘0:39’): Self reflection itself is not a soft skill, but rather a tool to help us develop our soft skills. Toby, can you explain that to us in general?

Dr. Tobin Porterfield (‘0:52): I can and our timing is great. The Harvard Business Review just this week has an article on the power of self reflection. I am getting the feeling that they folks there are listening to our podcasts and are buying into what we are doing.

Graham (‘1:12’): I love that. It’s a great leap.

Another Voice on Self Reflection

Porterfield (‘1:15’): No, seriously, I do feel like it’s just an affirmation of how powerful self reflection is and typical of the Harvard Business Review, they are looking to CEOs and how they dedicated large periods of time to quiet thought on their own to evaluate what’s going on in their lives, what’s going on, where the opportunities are. We look at self reflection a little differently. We are looking at it and saying the people we work with aren’t able to carve out two hours of their day. I know there’s value in self reflecting and spending that quiet time, but if I am going to spend two hours a day on that, I am going to have to get up around 3 AM. The realities for many of us in our workdays don’t support that. We stay so busy. That’s the pitfall of not self reflecting. It’s a great opportunity to grow, and that’s where we have endorsed it from a soft skills standpoint. You need to self reflect and in that time self evaluate on where you are with a couple of these soft skills and where are you growing. What were you going to try to improve from last week? You need to really be rating yourself and moving toward improvement. While it’s funny to look at the HBR side, but the reality that self reflection is a powerful tool.

What Is Self Reflection?

Graham (‘2:43’): Are we talking about self reflection in terms of journaling or is it just taking some moments to be mindful of what we’ve done and what we are trying to achieve? Or is it interacting with someone else and being accountable? Or is it all three of those or something else?

Porterfield (‘3:00’): We have to be open to how that self reflection takes shape in each of us individually. The No. 1 core element is dedicated time. There are great examples in the Harvard Business Review article, where some people say I do an hour of self reflection every day. Some people say I do six hours, but I spread it across the week, with one or two hours here and there. I have to get out of the office so I won’t get interrupted. I get up from my desk and on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, I take 45 minutes and go down to the coffee shop, put my earbuds in so I don’t get interrupted and work on my self reflection. I go through my list.

Porterfield (‘3:37’): For many of us, self reflection has to have a writing component, where here were the things I was working on, here’s what I was going to do, did I do them? What am I going to do to make sure they happen next time? As you know, I am a person who journals. I find that productive because it introduces a personal accountability so I can look at last week and see that I was going to do that. For me, journaling is an important part of self reflection. That’s really a personal preference.

Bob’s Example

Graham (‘4:04’): You and I both teach college and each day when I finish a class, I reflect on the class as I walk back to my office. I think of what I did well and what I didn’t do as well as I hoped. I make mental notes of what I would do differently next time I teach the class or this topic. I would do these things. Is that reflection? Does that qualify? Or is that reflection lite?

Porterfield (‘4:30’): That’s a good example, but it’s not going to get us to our soft skills improvement. Unless that was something you were going to work on in your course. Those things you do are what the HBR reminds us are really valuable in self growth and in continuous improvement. But if we are really going to work on soft skills, it’s going to take a different type of dedication. The article goes the same direction. It says that having a coach, having that external person involved might be necessary. We have talked about this before on the podcast. That mentoring can help greatly. It might be a peer or a co-worker; it might be a formal or informal relationship. But having that external influence to hold us accountable for our growth and also to be able to ask us those tough questions. When I view my journal, I put down what I was going to work on. But I am not quite as tough on myself as I should be. Someone from the outside might ask us why we didn’t do something we said we were going to do. Not okay you are going to do it this week. But why didn’t you? What got in the way and what are you doing to keep it from getting in the way this week? That external component can really fast-track transformation.

How Self Reflection Can Work

Graham (‘5:53’): In a perfect world, I would pick one or two soft skills that I want to try to work on. For instance, delegating tasks would be one. It just popped into my head. It is one of the 55 soft skills. If I were going to do that, I would say to myself: Okay, this week I am going to work on delegating more tasks that aren’t an ideal fit for me at my job. I would set that as the goal for the week and then as the week unfolds, I would reflect each day on the how I handled tasks. These are the 10 tasks I had come through the door. I did 9 of them. But in reflection, I really should have only done 4 of them. I delegated 1, but I should have delegated 6. My question to you is that if that is the type of self reflection we do, what is the outgrowth of that self reflection that improves our success? To me, that approach feels like Dad’s going to spank me, just like when I was a child and I didn’t clean my room.

Porterfield (‘7:02’): You also uncover another part of self reflection. We have to self regulate or self motivate. I have to ask myself how am I going to delegate better? I am going to do it, but maybe I am going to spend a little time finding a couple of articles on improving your delegation skills. I am going to talk to Bill because he seems to always have people doing stuff and reporting back to him. He spends more time interacting with people and doing 30 minute updates more than he does work. What’s that all about? Bill has it figured out. Maybe the informal mentoring possibility could help. I am not interested in Bill as a formal mentor, but he could talk to me about how to delegate better. And can we come up with a plan for how I am going to try it. He can check on me over the next few weeks. I will get more comfortable with delegating. That doesn’t necessarily answer your question, but that’s an element we definitely need to bring into the discussion.

What Do You Mean Fast-Tracking?

Graham (8:03′): That all makes sense to me. But you said this fast-tracks things. I am probably putting you on the spot right now, but why do you think that is? I am sitting here as we talk through self reflection, I am struggling to figure out the fast-track aspect of self reflection. However, I will give you a moment to think about it. While working on our book, I remember a study that talked about a company that focused on self reflection. They had a group of employees who came in for training. One group did their training and the last portion of the day was for self reflection for 10 days. The other group just left. They found afterward that when they got these people’s customer service evaluations — and it was a big group — the group that had done the self reflection scored 23% higher on the customer service evaluations from customers than the non self reflectors. That’s a really big difference. It made me take notice. Self reflection might be something valuable. What they posited in the article was that the self reflection at the end of the day actually gave those people a chance to internalize the training, to make it part of them, by talking to themselves about what it does for me. It wasn’t concept alone. It was now I am trying to figure out what it means for me. Here are the action steps for me. If I am dealing with a nasty customer, I learned in a lecture not to get mad. But with self reflection, here are the three things I am going to do to not get mad. Here are my hot buttons, which I know from self reflection. If I know that up front, I can avoid that. I gave one answer based on the research. Can you add something?

Porterfield (’10:20′): That example of self reflection’s benefits crystalizes why we need to do it. We can’t discount the power of self reflection and the time we invest in it. My fast-tracking comment was that we can justify our actions about why we didn’t do something. That accountability from good self reflection, especially with someone else, who makes sure we get something done, that’s when self reflection really helps us improve our soft skills. It makes me get it done. The process is probably just a little more human nature that we would not hold ourselves as accountable. Someone else sets a higher bar of accountability. If I am working with someone else, then he or she is invested in me. He or she expects me to make progress, and he or she is going to be asking me each week. Chances are I am going to make some progress, or I will quickly discover I am not ready to make progress on. We just need to decide and move on to something else rather than me just going week after week that I wish I could get better at delegation or something else. Some things we need to know from the outside that we just can’t tackle now. I might have learned that delegation is just a bigger animal than I can wrestle down right now, and I am going to set it down and work on something else that I can make progress on. We’ll come back to that one. Having that outside influence will make sure that it doesn’t just drag on unaddressed.

Do You Need a Mentor?

Graham (’11:51′): You could do it without that outside influence, correct, and still be successful, depending on who you are and what you are? I tend to be much more internal in that process. I sort have a running monologue with myself all day.

Porterfield (’12:07′): How’s that working?

Graham (’12:10′): I got you to do a podcast.

Porterfield (’12:13′): People listening on the podcast are saying, “You always do have a running dialogue. We feel for you.

Graham (’12:20′): No, monologue. You are seeing a little insight into Toby and me. I hope you are enjoying that. Toby’s picking on me. I will get even later. Whatever form it takes, whether it’s me doing it internally or you doing it more with an outside person working with you, it’s really about — to use your word that you have used a couple of times in the last few weeks — intentionality. This is the soft skill I am trying to work on. This is how I am going to work on it. This worked or didn’t work, and when it doesn’t work, we try something else. Is that a good summary of what we are really trying to get at?

Porterfield (’13:06′): It’s using that other soft skill of perseverance. This is important and I am going to stay at it. I am going to find a way to move forward.

Setbacks with Self Reflection

Graham (’13:19′): And setbacks will come.

Porterfield (’13:22′): They will.

Graham (’13:24′): That’s the other part of self reflection. If you get too bogged down in how you messed something up, you can’t ever achieve what you are trying to achieve. It’s only human nature that you are going to have some less than successful experiences as you learn a new skill. Really, all of these soft skills are new skills in how we apply them in new situations.

Graham (’13:46′): With that, Toby, we should probably close. Do you have anything to add? I had a monologue, to use the words we have been using.

Porterfield (’14:00′): No, I am going to break off here and go self reflect for a little bit and look at my day. That’s the other thing. For some people it’s the beginning of the day. With others, it’s the end of the day, like that study showed. It makes a lot of sense to do it at the end of the day. But for me, I know that I normally have nothing left. For me, I need to start the day with it and look at how I am going to try things out. The next day, I literally write down how I did on the previous day on what I thought I was going to make progress on.

Journaling and Its Benefits

Graham (’14:28′): Do you ever go back and look at those journal entries?

Porterfield (’14:34′): I do, but then my tears make the ink run.

Graham (’14:36′): But would you look back to like six months ago?

Porterfield (’14:38′): Yes, yes.

Graham (’14:40′): How often do you look back? I am curious. 

Porterfield (14:43′): Not very often, but I will get to a point and think, hey, do I remember that I addressed this before? What happened with that? It allows me to look back and see that here it was back here and this is how it resolved. I actually do go back to them.

Graham (’15:00′): Wow, I did not know that. That’s kind of cool. It’s neat to have that record to check where you are and see your progress. One of the things about these soft skills is that because they are hard to put your fingers on, it’s really hard to see progress. I am actually starting to think that your written approach might be more useful. Who knows? I might get that monologue onto the page, which would make a really great memoir one day.

Graham (’15:30′): With that, Toby, we should wrap this up. If you are eager to talk to us, and I can’t imagine why. If you want to talk to us, share your opinions about our podcast or other episodes, share ideas for future podcasts, complain about our witty banter, whatever it is, you can always do that by sending an email to or you can tweet us at @RealSoftSkills. We’re getting technologically saavy. We also post on the website. We post blogs, links to old episodes and other information, including our show notes. You could access the Harvard Business Journal article so you can look at that yourself.

Next Week

Graham (’16:30′): Next week, we will be looking at another soft skill, one that I find really difficult. Patience. Look for that and more next week on the Serious Soft Skills Podcast.

Hosts Dr. Tobin Porterfield and Bob Graham discuss perseverance or persistence, and why it plays a critical role in group dynamics.


Graham ‘0:21’: Welcome to Episode 10 of Serious Soft Skills. I’m Bob Graham and with me as always, at least so far, is Dr. Tobin Porterfield. We each teach college; we collaborate on researching soft skills, and we both have used and seen others employ soft skills over the course of our long and illustrious careers, not that long and not that illustrious. We think our experience and expertise give us a unique lens for looking at soft skills. We’re going to show you that when we talk in the next few moments about perseverance.

What Is Empathy?

Porterfield ‘0:57’: Bob, you already let the cat out of the bag about what we are covering, but I am pretty excited. In these podcasts, we laid out the over 50 soft skills that we have identified through our research and we framed them into four groups — Individual soft skills, a big list with 28; ones where we interact with people, Nexus soft skills, where there are seven; then we looked at Group soft skills, where we work with a team or group; and Enterprise soft skills are the leadership ones.

Porterfield ‘1:32’: Now it’s time to dig in deeper. Today we want to get into one of those Individual soft skills, one of the 28. In our list, we call it persistence. The individual should bring persistence when going after an objective, to not let obstacles get in their way. Persistence is to vastly pursue when undertaking a task even when hindered by an obstacle or distracted by an obstacle.

Perseverance is different from being stubborn.

Porterfield ‘2:07’: We’ve worked with people who have are stubborn. Then we looked at other people who we admire because they persevere. It’s not usually the person who is stubborn that we admire. It’s perseverance. There’s a difference there that we want to make sure we unwrap today. We really need to understand what perseverance means for an individual and how an organization perseveres.

Graham ‘2:33’: Can I tell you a story, Toby? I have a great story about someone who persevered. And when I get to the end I think you are going to know who this person is. I think everyone will know this person.

The Story of a Writer Who Finally Succeeded

Graham ‘2:48’: For purposes of this story, I am going to call him Steve. And Steve when he was a child liked to write. He wrote his first story before he could even shave. His mother loved his story and said it should be in a book. He didn’t think a lot of it. A couple of years later, he sends one of his stories to a magazine to get published. They rejected it. He put the rejection letter on his wall and he keeps writing. He keeps writing. And he gets more and more rejection letters, but he keeps writing. Ten years later, he’s still getting more rejection letters. Now, he is 26 years old. He a teacher with a wife and two children and gets a telegram — back before the Internet — and the telegram is from Doubleday Publishing Co., one of the big publishing companies. They tried to call him on the phone, but he and his wife didn’t have enough money for a phone at that point. But he kept on writing and teaching. The telegram isn’t a rejection letter, but Doubleday wanted to publish his first novel. It was horror story about Carrie White, a teenage girl with telekinetic powers. He got a $2,500 advance for the book and not long after that, the paperback rights for Carrie sold for $400,000. That was the start of the person we know as Stephen King, one of the most prolific writers of the 20th Century and into the 21st Century. 

Graham ‘4:37’: I’m a writer so that story of course resonates with me profoundly. But that’s one of those stories when you talk about perseverance, he really stuck to what he believed to be true. He kept writing and knew he would find a place to publish one day. Rather than send the same story again and again, he kept working on his craft, modifying his approach and improving it. Eventually, Doubleday Publishing says they want to publish his book. When you talk about the difference between stubborn and persistence or perseverance, Stephen King demonstrates that in his writing. He didn’t send that same story he sent when he was 10 years old to every publication in the world, thinking eventually someone would publish it. Instead, he kept working on his craft and continuing to refine it and improve it, and getting better. I am sure his first story, the one his mother loved, wasn’t Carrie. 

The Challenges of Perseverance

Porterfield ‘5:52’: You bring out some of the challenges of perseverance. In the Stephen King example, it’s not just doing the same thing over and over again. It’s improvement and a commitment and as you said, a faith that this is what I am supposed to be doing. This is the right direction and I need to keep at it.

Perseverance is a lot about keeping at it at a real, continuing to improve way.

Organizations Must Persevere

Porterfield ‘6:22’: It really crosses over from the individual to the organization. For an organization that has a vision for what they want to be, the goal, the goals of what they want to achieve, staying after that regardless of what’s going on and persevering to work toward that goal is vital. At the same time, we mentioned the word distractions.

There’s a difference in being aware of our surroundings and being distracted and thrown off track fro where we are going.

Porterfield ‘6:46’: We can’t blindly go after things. We need to listen to those rejection letters and see what we are doing wrong, what was good and what was bad. Then we need to make those changes and improvements so those obstacles don’t become barriers. They become learning points and we move forward on them.

Another Story About Perseverance

Graham ‘7:15’: I have another story about perseverance. I had a student last year who wanted to go to medical school. She was an undergraduate student. She realized that she had to write a great resume and a letter about why she wanted to go into med school. She came to me. I had taught her a year or two before. She didn’t know how to write it. She wanted to meet with me and talk through it and show me drafts for comments as she went along. She came with a first draft that was pretty rough. We talked through it, and she took copious notes about everything we discussed. Then, she goes back and a week later and wants to meet again. She brings me a next draft, which is much better. And we talk about more improvements. She continues to improve it. She came to my office over about three months six times. By the end, she had a great piece. She was willing to persevere. She wanted to go to medical school. I am happy to say she got into medical school. I was one of those people who wrote a letter of recommendation. I knew she was someone who could do the work. It was easy to say that because I had seen all the work she did to get into medical school. She had her eye on the prize. The prize was medical school. The hinderance for her was getting that letter they need to be good enough for them to accept me. She knew where she was going and she knew what she needed to do to get there. It was just a matter of traveling that road. I can assure you a senior in college has plenty of distractions. All of her courses and friends, everything go on around her — but she kept to her commitment to get the best letter she could so she could get where she wanted to go. That’s an example of those whole idea of perseverance that is a little easier for us to appreciate. It wasn’t her saying I am going to do something unrealistic. Medical school was realistic. It was just a matter of her achieving these things to reach that objective.

Can We Get Better at It?

Porterfield ‘9:45’: You just got us to our next point. If we drill into that a little bit, we have to figure out how to practice, how to learn to be better at perseverance. Your student example gets at an element of that. She had a clear goal in mind. She knew what the obstacles were that she needed to overcome to get there. When we talk about obstacles and getting to a goal, I think of Randy Pausch, a faculty at Carnegie Melon University. We lost him a few years ago to cancer. A case of perseverance, but at the same time, he wrote the book, The Last Lecture, and did several videos on it. He talked about perseverance. He said that those obstacles are not there to get in your way. They are there to see how badly you want it and to keep the other people out. That’s sometimes a good way to look at things. Your letter is a great example of that in that medical school was the goal, a big obstacle for her was that essay, and keeping the eye on the prize. I’m going to get into medical school, but how do I get past this obstacle. Who can help me? What faculty members? Who can read it?

Perseverance has to start with choosing the appropriate goal. Once we know what that goal is, we have to know what the real obstacles are.

Graham ’11:09′: Isn’t it also being realistic with ourselves as well. Knowing what those obstacles are can be hard to admit. Admitting you are not a great writer and coming to a teacher for help is not an easy thing. It’s not easy at all. For me, it’s hard to ask for help all the time. I can only imagine that is fairly common for people. But before you can ask for help, you have to acknowledge that you are not as good at something as you may need to be. 

How Perseverance Helps Entrepreneurs Succeed

Graham ’11:44′: You look at a lot of entrepreneurial efforts going on and you see that someone has a great idea, but they need to bring other people into that to build that team that can achieve the result. Because they cannot do it themselves. 

Most of us don’t have the expertise to be able to do something start to finish. When we bring in team members to help, we give ourselves a huge advantage.

Graham ’12:07′: When we say, “Toby, you’re really good at certain aspects of what we want to achieve. I need your help to achieve these things.” We see it today in this podcast. We didn’t script it out real well. You have some real strengths that most people would not know, but it works really well. I have to acknowledge that because we had a discussion a couple of hours ago about how I was going to do this one by myself. Your contributions today are far more valuable than it would have been if I had done it by myself. 

It’s the acknowledgement that two heads is better than one, three is better than one, and building a team that allows you to persevere is important.

Graham ’12:45′: The other thing a team does is when someone is down, the other people pick them up. We think of perseverance as a uniquely individual quality. But a team can develop a quality of perseverance, too. You have the person who says we can’t win the football game. We’re down three touchdowns. And you have the guy on the team who says they can score three touchdowns in no time at all. And they get behind him. That person carries the team forward. 

We think of perseverance as an individual characteristic, but a team also develops perseverance. They help each other.

Porterfield ’13:30′: We are right on track with that. It’s such a necessary skill so we put it in the Individual soft skills category. If we’re really going to move organizations forward and we’re going to move forward in our own careers, we have to bring that perseverance to it. We can’t just be cast about and be going here and there. We have to keep on track. Having that group, having other people involved can be a benefit, especially if they are the right people.

Next Week’s Episode

Porterfield ’14:03′: Next week, we will be talking about project management, another soft skill. We are going to jump into another group this time. Project management has some controversy so we will have an interesting discussion. We’ll look at what it means and why it’s valuable to employees and organizations. Thanks for listening, good day, and good soft skills.

Dr. Tobin Porterfield and Bob Graham take a deeper dive into one of the key areas of soft skills: Individual soft skills. We’re also going to talk about how best to get moving toward improving your soft skills.

Bob Graham ‘0:00’:  Coming up, we’re going to take a deeper dive into one of the key area of soft skills: Individual soft skills.

Graham ‘0:23’: Welcome to Episode 4 of Serious Soft Skills. I am Bob Graham, and with me, as always,  is Dr. Tobin Porterfield. We each teach college, we collaborate on researching soft skills, and we both have used and seen others use soft skills in various jobs over our careers. We think our experience and expertise give us a unique lens for looking at soft skills and I think we are going to show you that with what we are about to discuss. Right, Toby?

Tobin Porterfield ‘1:01’: It should be an interesting topic today.

How We See Individual Soft Skills

Graham ‘1:03’: Every topic is an interesting topic when you and I are looking into it. Let’s get right into it. In one of the past episodes (Episode 3), we looked at listening skills as one of the most important Individual soft skills. I made the case that it was the most important and we sort of wrestled with it a bit. Today we’re going to talk about more of those Individual soft skills and how they show up in people’s lives and in their work. Can you sort of help us set this up?

Porterfield ‘1:31’: In our research we have found over 50 specific skills that are part of soft skills. We talked about how that list can really be overwhelming. We have broken that list into four groupings, with one being Individual soft skills. We call them that because they are so much more internalized.

Porterfield ‘1:54’: Let me list out some of those Individual soft skills so our listeners can get a feel for the type of items. I think they will be able to connect pretty well with them. Working independently, being proactive, attention to detail, positive attitude, being a lifelong learner, being loyal, stress management, ethics, and of course, good old listening skills, perseverance, self motivation and time management. I would think that people could see how we put those together as something that’s foundation, but they’re also ones that we looked at how those soft skills play out in the workplace. So we found these and brought these together because they are ones you bring to the workplace, as opposed to ones you might use when engaging one-on-one, in a group or the ones we would use when we are trying to influence the greater organization. These come much closer to home.

Breaking Down Being A Life-Long Learner

Graham ‘3:13’: As I heard you go through that list, those soft skills seemed like the ones I can work on within the four walls of my cubicle or the four walls of my office. I can be improving on them without dealing with other people. I can be thinking about being a life-long learner. How does that show up? It’s as easy as doing an online seminar, or to prepare for our podcast, I had to learn about podcasts. I listened to about 15 or 20 different podcasts on podcasts. I read three books on podcasting. I spoke to people on podcasting and how to do a podcast. Rather than going, I don’t know how to do it, I’ll never know it, I took the time to develop those expertise. Is that an example of an individual doing the work to develop one of these soft skills, lifelong learning? Of course, that makes me more valuable. And being able to administer this podcast process really helps our company in a lot of ways, as well.

Porterfield ‘4:25’: You touched on a good point here that I hope our listeners pick up on that nuance. We are talking here about the soft skill of being a lifelong learner. But you spoke about being able to manage the software, being able to write the scripts, to do the editing. We’ve said before that soft skills and hard skills go hand-in-hand. The two feed off of each other. Being a lifelong learner means I may be developing my soft skills or I may be developing my hard skills.

Graham ‘5:08’: You just said that and my first thought was oh, I just screwed up in what we are talking about. But I guess they really do go hand-in-hand. It’s not so much being a lifelong learner develops that soft skills, but as we see with the podcast, it helps develop that hard skill.

Being able to do something more is why we are developing any skills, whether it’s technical skills or soft skills. Our goal ultimately is to be more valuable in the workplace, both to achieve better results, but to also position ourselves for better things within an organization or an industry.

Creating Value With Soft Skills

Porterfield ‘5:56’: That’s correct, but also, let’s flip it the other way. If you went out and said I am going to learn how to do video editing and audio editing, and you developed that hard skill by itself, what good does it do you?

You put those communication skills, time management and other soft skills to it, and now you have taken that hard skill that you developed and you have created something of value.

Porterfield ‘6:26’: My struggle is that I believe our hard skills aren’t value creating. They’re resume items; they’re interesting.

It’s fun to learn new things, but I believe we would agree that soft skills are then what takes those hard skills and brings value to yourself and your organization.

Porterfield ‘6:52’: That’s really an exciting side of this and we will get into a few more of these soft skills.

Soft Skills in this Podcast

Graham ‘6:55’: When I came to you with the idea of the podcast, I had to sell you on the idea. There are some soft skills at play there.

Porterfield ‘7:08’: We have to be able to articulate our ideas, our passions, our vision. That’s where we see some difference. We talked in an earlier podcast about listening as an enabler of influence, and clearly you wanted to influence me to commit to and invest in putting this type of information out there through a podcast.

Hard and Soft Skills are Married

Graham ‘7:33’: So the technical skills and soft skills really are interconnected at all levels in a way we saw in the research we talked about in Episode 4 and as we talk through this today. Technical skills and soft skills are really tied together in a variety of ways.

Porterfield ‘7:46’: As we look at a few other of these soft skills on the Individual side, we start to see some of the nuances of them. We look at something like time management. Sometime a person in our circle might say we always show up late and can’t seem to get the priorities done each day. A lot of times that’s attributed to our ability to manage time. That’s one where there are certainly tools out there to help people to organize and structure their time. There are apps all over the place these days to do it. Some of these Individual soft skills – managing our time, setting our priorities, organizing ourselves so we accomplish what is important each day – there are materials out there to provide the knowledge in how to get that one going.

Obviously, Not!

Porterfield ’8:50’: But there are others in that same set of Individual soft skills – like loyalty, and similar to that – where those are not so obvious. There’s not an app for perseverance. Unless you get your app for exercising and it motivates you to persevere and to get out and do your steps each day. That’s a little removed from actually developing the soft skill of perseverance. What we see is that these soft skills get developed through experience, as we have mentioned before. We need to have that experience of successfully persevering, successfully being proactive and seeing the positive results from that. Sometimes we can go through a self-reflective process, the need to persevere. If people self-reflect and then act upon that, and they say there’s this issue and I have been meaning to talk with my coworker about. I am going to take that effort and go out and do it and see those positive results. That’s great, but having a peer coach to come alongside us and tell us, “Hey, you said you were having trouble being proactive. What’s one thing you want to address this week?” Have that followup. Have that accountability, some coaching, some mentoring, some followup. Others of us might be able to lead ourselves through a self-reflective process and self-evaluation to be able to make progress on that.

That process of making progress on soft skills is one of the challenges of soft skills and one of the reasons why soft skills haven’t gotten the attention they deserve.

Porterfield ’10:54’: Learning algebra, learning to do an analysis in statistics – we can cookbook that. We can give problems, exercises and homework. We can give feedback on that. And then people go back and work on it and get better. Those hard skills are learned still through experience, but it is a different experiential process. It’s different from developing a soft skill. We see some of those difficulties in developing a soft skill compared to a hard skill.

Why People May Walk Away

Porterfield ’11:28’: The difficulties might encourage someone to say, “That’s too tough. I’m not going to deal with it.”

Soft skills can get sidelined.

Graham: ’11:37’: There’s another way for me to develop some soft skills, which is just watching people who are successful and saying this person is did this, they achieved this. What can I learn from that? What did they do? To me the lesson in perseverance is to look at one we talk about a million times: Steve Jobs and the glass screen on the iPhone. If you want the movie or read the book by Walt Issacson, you see it was going to a glass screen. They said it can’t be a glass screen. And Jobs said it has to be a glass screen. They said it won’t work, it won’t work, it won’t work. But lo and behold, he perseveres and achieves. Whenever I am faced with a situation in my career where I don’t think I can succeed, I go back to Jobs and say, “Maybe this is my glass-screen moment.” And I need to persevere. It can be a big thing or a little thing. That’s just one example from me.

Finding Other People’s Gold

Graham ’12:48’: I like to look at other people, what they do that’s successful and what they don’t do that might have made them successful. Some of them have great ideas and achieve great results. Some have great ideas and don’t achieve great results. Sometimes dissecting what didn’t work can be very instructive in knowing what in the future could work.

Porterfield ’13:19’: Let’s tie it a little closer to home to the eye of the hunter. By now, I hope our network is a little more sensitized and they are seeing those soft skills in action. It might be something where we can be just a little more attentive to our interactions with a group of people and see soft skills in action in other people. We can look at how they persevered, when they pulled back on a topic and let it ferment some and when they introduced it. How did they manage that conversation to, in the end, influence the direction things would go? We all probably have some great examples in our own circles that we can draw. That approach also gives us the opportunity to speak to that person and say, “Wow, I saw how you did this in the meeting. Wow, how did you learn to do that? How do you know when to do that?”

We all have that opportunity to create what I call an ad-hoc mentoring relationship.

Porterfield ’14:24’: It doesn’t have to be a formal relationship, but we can say, “I respect how you did that. Help me understand it because I want to be able to use that soft skill.”

Trying Someone Else’s Glasses On

Graham ’14:37’: I have been blessed in my career with people who I have been able to go to after a meeting or after they did something and say to them, “Walk me through your thought process.” It is amazingly insightful to hear someone describe their thought process in using a soft skill. You realize that their internal logic is somewhat different from your own.

It can be incredibly enlightening to see how someone else perceives how something happened.

Graham ’15:10’: All it requires is to ask someone. Usually, they are very interested in the opportunity because it’s a way to recognize someone who’s doing something successfully. It doesn’t have to be formal. I hear from my students all the time is the question of whether it should be a formal mentoring relationship, a written contract kind of thing. Mentoring doesn’t have to be formal. It can be as simple as I want to be more like Toby in some way, and I may never tell Toby what that thing is. I just start to look at how you do that thing and I start to think about how I can do it better from watching you do it.

The First Step To Start Improving Your Soft Skills

Graham ’15:46’: The other thing I wanted to throw out there because we are talking about this and how we do this as an individual, saying, “I’m going to be a better listener” or “I’m going to manage my time better.” We have to ask what would that look like? What are the steps I need to take to make that happen.

The first step is really saying to ourselves, I am going to try to be better at this soft skill.

Graham ’16:23’: We have a list of over 50 soft skills. It would be impossible to work on all of the soft skills at one time. If you could work on two at any given time, that would be great. You may also find the case where you are working on your listening skills because you have a day-long retreat at work and that‘s a great day to work the soft skill of listening. But another day, you are meeting with a vendor and you may have to be working on the soft skill of being proactive because you know problems are coming up. That soft skills landscape changes situationally. Just talking through this, you can’t always know which soft skill you need to be working on. It changes quite quickly and sometimes we might be addressing more than one.

Those Individual Soft Skills Are…

Porterfield ’17:12’: That’s a good way to assess it. Let’s wrap it up with what we identify as those Individual soft skills. Maybe people can use it almost as a scorecard. We can provide the list of these soft skills on our website at If you want to go through and kind of rate yourself, we’ll have them there. Let me go through them. You can see where you rank on them and think about where you might want to do some work to get better.

  • Working independently
  • Being proactive
  • Being detail oriented
  • Having a positive attitude
  • Being a lifelong learner
  • Being loyal
  • Stress management
  • Listening skills
  • Persistence
  • Self-motivation
  • Time management

They are in no particular order, but those are the soft skills we pulled together out of the 50 soft skills and said those are the ones that start with me.

Making Improvements

Graham ’18:18’: I counted five that I need to work on. I guess I have my work to do before the next episode. Some might say I need to work on seven or eight of the list of what nine or 11 we put out there. No one has to know that you are doing this. This is something you can do that you can assess this on your own and do this on your own. You may find someone saying you are different or better. For instance, someone might say, “You’ve been on time to meetings a lot more. What’s going on?” Or you may never get that kind of feedback. But inside, you know you have gotten better at these Individual soft skills, which start the ball running toward some of these more complex soft skills.

Next Week’s Episode

Porterfield ’18:59’: Bob, this is a good point to wrap up this episode. We’ve spelled out and identified those Individual soft skills, which are really close to who we are. In our next episode, let’s expand from there and look at those soft skills we use in one-on-one interactions.

Graham ’19:15’: Thanks for doing that closing, Toby, but you forgot two things. You forgot to thank people for listening, telling them to have a good day, and of course, your favorite thing, good soft skills.



Critics of the role soft skills play in people’s and organization’s success often argue that soft skills cannot be taught. We disagree, and not just because we both get paid to help students develop their soft skills in our classrooms.

Soft skills cannot be taught like Microsoft Excel or organic chemistry. No textbook can give you lessons, formulas and practice questions to develop soft skills. (If only, they could.)

Soft skills are developed through experience. You learn by doing.

But doing is only part of the equation. Self-reflection and analysis of what worked and didn’t work are keys to developing these skills. The challenge is that the self-reflection doesn’t often yield as easy a result as reflecting on a missed math question. In the case of math, you check the formula against what you used and make sure your actual math is correct. The problem has to be one or the other of those things.

With soft skills, the list of why something went wrong could be endless. Take for instance a 5-minute presentation a team leader gives to his team. They are bored, unengaged and eager to get on with their day. What went wrong?

Here are some of the possibilities:

  • The introduction didn’t capture their attention.
  • The team leader didn’t speak loudly enough or with variances in his voice (monotone never works).
  • The room was too hot or too cold, seats were too close together or the room was too big.
  • The information could have been better communicated in writing or one-on-one.
  • The team leader didn’t believe in what he was saying — and the audience could tell because of his body language.
  • The team leader was giving a message that conflicted with his prior statements on the topic.
  • The audience didn’t need to know the information.
  • The audience had heard it all before from the last leader and the leader before her.
  • The technology (slides, projector, clicker, screen) didn’t work correctly.

These are but some of the many possible causes for a bad presentation. And, of course, some are outside the control of the speaker, although most are not.

Becoming an effective speaker requires learning from every experience of speaking. What worked? What didn’t work? And why or why not? Only with this careful introspection, coupled with the evaluation of honest feedback from people in the audience, can someone become a better speaker.

But so often our ability to accept that feedback is challenged by our ego. But we’ll talk about that next time.