Why We Shouldn’t Call Them “Soft Skills”

by B. Kim BarnesPhoto by B. Kim Barnes
(Originally posted on LinkedIn, February 19, 2019)

“Soft skills” have been much in the news recently. Many studies, including some recently published on LinkedIn, have noted that while AI is coming for many jobs, it will be a long while, if ever, before the robots are sophisticated enough to do the complex work of parent, leader, friend, nurse, or member of the clergy. In fact, there are many roles, jobs, and careers that require a strong set of the skills we have long termed “soft.”

In English-speaking cultures, the word, “soft” tends to have a pejorative connotation – except in advertising about products that touch our bodies. It is often used to imply weakness, slipperiness of convictions, foolishness – and, of course, traditional feminine behavior (usually applied negatively to men).

As someone who has studied, written, taught, and spoken about skills such as communication, influence, conflict resolution, and leadership, I can attest to the fact that these skills are in no way “soft” – in the sense described above. In fact, they are among the most difficult to teach and to learn. (Perhaps this is why robots haven’t as yet learned them.) For a long while, we (in my company, Barnes & Conti Associates) have been calling them “the difficult skills.”

These skills – the ones we use to lead, to teach, to comfort, to confront, to nurture, to mentor, to include, to create, to design, to amuse, to resolve issues, to inspire – require enormous understanding, sophistication, and practice, unless we are lucky enough to have had extraordinary role models from childhood.

The “being an English major leads to a career as a taxi driver” cliché is not relevant to a world in which success will increasingly be defined by the quality of our relationships rather than the quantity of widgets we produce or the complexity of the machines we control. In this individualistic society, we will have to learn to connect as well as to differentiate, to take initiative as well as to follow others, to risk as well as to protect, to respect as well as to challenge, to see and reflect beauty that others miss, to influence and be influenced, to be open-hearted as well as open-minded. These are human skills. These are difficult skills. These are the skills that will make us unreplaceable.

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