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The Hard Things About Soft Skills

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Soft skills is a bit of misnomer. These skills are difficult (some might say “hard”) to train and track, but they are crucial to succeeding in any organization and in life in general.

Seth Godin advocated for renaming soft skills as “real skills” and other more functional skills as “vocational”. We tend to overvalue these functional skills since they drive the key performance indicators we have in the working world and are more easily visible. Soft skills are just as important, if not more important, depending on the work an organization does and the role a person has.

If we can all agree that soft skills are important, then the real question is, how do we alleviate some of the difficulties when it comes to measuring and nurturing them with students so that they’re well positioned to succeed in whatever work they decide to do once they graduate?

Emphasizing Importance

The first step is emphasizing their value to students and how they show up in every type of work a student might do. Workshops, speakers, and team-based activities can help with this. For example, when I was a student at the University of Delaware, there was an effort called the Blue Hen Leadership Program (BHLP) that helped explore these concepts and cultivate soft skill development in students. It outlined the types of skills you need to develop, explained how to work on them, and then gave a certificate for completion of required pieces of the program. It was an amazing experience for me as a student and it helped emphasize a lot of the soft skills I use today as a professional.

By providing a roadmap for students, programs like the BHLP can help guide students to get a comprehensive overview of everything they need to know to work well with other people. Students are not aware of what they don’t know (which seems obvious to say) and without our guidance, they may overlook pieces of learning that are valuable for their success. We can even specify pathways towards different careers to cater to students’ interests. Consider how engaging it could be to have an etiquette dinner to teach students how to network and attend a formal dinner with a focus on a particular industry like education or international relations. Students would then be building real, relevant connections while they learn.

Guiding Reflection

Another important piece here is to have students process their learning and reflect. Human interactions are complex and nuanced, so there are often a lot of grey areas. It can be helpful to talk through these things, since it can be very anxiety ridden for a lot of people to experience something like networking. This will make sure students have their own questions answered, normalize any experiences with other students, and allow you to find out how students felt about the event. These reflections can also inform how you might tinker the event moving forward in case it didn’t achieve the outcomes you wanted or it did but not as effectively as you might have hoped.

There are a lot of hard things about soft skills, but if you come at them with intentional consideration, you can help students to understand their importance and cultivate their understanding.