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Saturday, October 25, 2014

'Soft' Skills Are the Hard Part

      This guy had something of a problem. He wandered through the crowded social event, approaching women with an intense stare, mumbling something and scaring the hell out of them. They all reacted in ways that drove him off, but he stayed on the hunt.    
     No one knew what to do. People went over to the organization’s president, urging/demanding that he do something. He would say, “Yeah, I’m going right over there.” But he didn’t move.
     Someone else, realizing nothing was going to happen unless someone did something, did something. He went up to the problem person, spoke quietly to him and took him gently, firmly by the elbow. There was no resistance as he guided the fellow out the door and drove him home.  

    Nothing to it.
     Well, actually, there was something to it. Dozens of people had been standing right there. Some looked the other way, some couldn’t stop staring – but only one person acted in an effective way. Why? Why didn’t the only person with formal responsibility – the organization’s president – do anything?
     Only one person acted because the unexamined prospect of doing so seemed too daunting to everyone else. It would have been just too hard. Better to just hope somebody will take care of it before it gets worse. Call the police? Well, he’s not really doing anything. Maybe we should just leave.

     Welcome to the deceptive reality of the so-called “soft skills.” Knowing what to do – and actually doing it – in a very dicey human situation are in the skills category called “soft.” In the case of the disruptive guest, the “soft” thing was too tough for dozens of people to even contemplate. Maybe not quite so soft.
     The person who saved the day didn’t have to employ conflict management skills, because he had the wisdom, the confidence and the communication ability to detect and evaluate potential conflict, and nip it in the bud.
     It’s quite likely the man also had thought ahead about such situations, and had decided the steps to take when one presented itself. So add “thinking ahead” to the bulging kit bag of non-hard skills.
     When people lay out separate lists of skills, the “hard” ones include subject-matter knowledge arising from formal education/training/experience – how to speak the lingo, use the tools, run the machines, apply the procedures.
     Everything not directly required for making the widgets defaults into the “soft” category. Included are leading, following, thinking, communicating (listening, talking, persuading). Problem-solving and the general ability to understand might be on this side, or maybe somewhere in between. Sort of also-rans in the consideration.
     There is much talk these days about how to prepare our young people, as well as our unemployed and underemployed adults, for the well-paying jobs that are replacing the ones lost in a changing economy.

     The overwhelming tide of opinion seems to read “Science, Technology, Engineering, Math – STEM.” Let’s get everybody up to speed on these most definable of skills and we’ll all be riding a mighty wave of wealth and prosperity.
     Oh, really? How are these hard-skilled types going to lead, read, write, listen, talk, communicate, argue, persuade? We’ve all personally lived the horror of attempting to get things done in the company of single-minded people who are superb at doing tasks but are impossible to put up with.
     More broadly – and realistically – how are they going to vote wisely, if they vote at all, and otherwise participate in a free society? Our system will collapse when too many of its occupants have no idea of the importance of citizenship, or even how to practice it. Citizenship means understanding and debating issues, showing up in efforts to improve the community, supporting causes and candidates, conducting campaigns yourself.
     So maybe it’s NOT all about just knowing how to do a job and earn a paycheck.
     Things already are sagging noticeably in the United States as too many of us lay back on  our own concerns, leaving smallish bands of fanatics to battle over selfish, narrow, non-negotiable positions in determining public policy. Their outcomes will come back on all of us, you can be sure.
     Don’t these people, the uninvolved ones as well as the ferocious scorched-earthers, know what happens when you behave that way?
     No, they don’t, because they don’t know history and literature. They don’t see how that is going to get them jobs. And how do you explain to them the higher human values nurtured and enhanced by the visual and performing arts?
     The apparent, frightening, majority conclusion: All that stuff costs too much. We don’t need it.   

    Costs too much? Compared to what? Our priorities rise directly from our values.
     If it’s important to you that there be a functional environment at your social event, within your project, in your workplace or throughout your nation, do you need soft skills to make sure that happens?
   Do you need soft skills to personally make sure, if it’s your job, that the right things happen? What will you do if the people whose job it is don’t take care of it?
     How can you deal with all this that if you are ineffective at the human processes of communication, collaboration and leadership? And, if you’re not up to the challenge, how do you repair the shortfall?
     And why would you bestir yourself to work at acquiring and perfecting all that, anyway?
     Because you understand history, that’s why. And because you have read the fiction and nonfiction that so profoundly reveal to you your situation as a human being. Now you understand. You know about the various possibilities of human life, good and bad.
     When you have the confidence and the competence to smoothly and respectfully handle a minor public disruption, you thereby have all the equipment you need to resolve a major human problem in the workplace.
     The personal challenge for each of us can’t get harder than intense confrontation with other humans. Each such situation is extremely difficult in the moment for the person who is enmeshed in it. Big nasty things, little nasty things. When you’re there, they are pretty much equally tough.
     The skills are silky soft to the touch, but underneath they are powerful, utterly unshakable. Soft competence is hard, very hard, to acquire. But, if you really want to get somewhere, nothing else is tough enough to get you all the way there.
See also: Conflict

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