Each summer more than 100 children of all ages come together to put together a summer production at a church located in Stewartstown, Pa. For more than 10 years, one or more of our nieces and nephews have been involved in this production, whether on stage, behind the scenes, in the orchestra, or playing a leadership role in the music or on stage. This summer, five of them will participate in some way in “Beauty and the Beast.”

Beyond giving the children something to do for the summer, the stage productions, which have included “Shrek,” “Fiddler on the Roof,” and “Godspell,” allow the children to develop their soft skills. They have to listen to directors and fellow actors. They work on their communication and presentation skills, two of the more important soft skills, based on what employers seek each year. They must be persistent, as learning lines and dance moves and other nuances of the show takes most of the summer. They have to adapt to change, for as anyone who has ever been on stage can attest, no two shows are the same. They develop their teamwork and leadership skills, helping younger performers and understudies to prepare.

None of the actors and actresses, the stage hands, the orchestra or anyone else is thinking about their soft skills development as they participate in the show. But when they have to sell themselves to colleges and employers with their resumes, cover letters, essays and discussions, they are likely to point to these hot summer nights and the soft skills they developed.

 

 

Our mind is constantly evaluating the angles, possibilities, benefits and drawbacks of countless decisions, though we rarely think much about what is going on in our minds.

If I ask my boss for a day off next week, will I miss out on an opportunity? Should I tell HR that someone has been reporting his arrival time at work as far earlier than the reality? Should I tell my boss I am looking for a new job or should I keep her in the dark until I have one in place?

Each of these questions – and a million others that come up each day – requires a careful analysis of the situation. Consider the list of soft skills necessary for each of the questions raised above:

  • Listening – Paying attention to what others did in similar situations to learn the rules of the road.
  • Critical Thinking – Using the information obtained from listening and other stimuli to formulate an appropriate response to the situation.
  • Presentation – Evaluating other people’s words and actions through their presentation of information, and preparing a possible presentation of the information regarding the situation. Also, being able to talk coherently so that the people involved understand and appreciate your concerns and interests.
  • Negotiating – Determining what should be done and how to handle it with others involved.
  • Conflict Management – Being able to deal with any negatives outcomes or consequences that arise from your choices.
  • Adaptability – Being able to alter your actions as the situation evolves. For instance, if your boss seems distracted when you enter her office, recognizing the signals and putting off the discussion for later in the day.
  • Responsibility – Taking responsibility for your career and your success and for the requirements of your job.
  • Proactivity – Being proactive about your career and situation
  • Loyalty – Weighing the requirements of loyalty against what you need to succeed for yourself.
  • Confident – Having the confidence to admit to yourself that you are ready for a new job.
  • Ethical – Deciding what is best to do to meet your own ethical standards.

Most of us take action without much thought. We might do what someone else told us to do. We might just do what feels right. We might follow our instinct or our gut.

But breaking down the individual skills at play gets at one of the core realities of soft skills. They rarely, if ever, operate in isolation. One soft skill is dependent on other soft skills. Notice how many of the ones listed above play off of one or another of them.

Even though soft skills usually operate in concert with one another, we often cannot identify areas for improvement unless we look at them individually. And as we work on one soft skill, it influences and affects the others. Further complicating matters is that some soft skills are more in use than others, and some work more closely with others.

 

No one likes to be wrong. And even worse is when that thing we are wrong about is personal. We all have an ego that has to be protected.

Often, effectively developing our soft skills necessitates checking our ego at the door.

Take, for instance, the situation involving a team leader who gave a bad presentation that we talked about last time.

To improve on his presentation would require him to first and foremost admit that something wasn’t right about his presentation. None of us like to work hard on something only to see it fail, especially when it is something as personal as a presentation. We struggle to separate the mechanics of the presentation from what it says about us as a person.

We see this problem occur in our students all the time. Their presentation has some problems, but they internalize the feedback, whether from other students or their instructor, as an indictment of who they are inside.

That inability to separate Presentation Me from Real Me often lead them to become defensive, which in turn discourages people from giving them the feedback they need to become better. If you think for a second, you can probably come up with a similar situation in your own life. We all do it.

Until we realize that good, honest feedback isn’t a bad thing, but the thing to help us get better. When we check our ego at the door, our soft skills, no matter what they are, will begin to improve exponentially.

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.