Can Soft Skills Be Learned? Only If You Truly Commit Some people think that you're either good at them or you aren't.
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My time as a doctor and a surgeon taught me this. It isn't our technical skills, like coding or marketing, but the power skills like leadership and empathy that are so important for the future of work. Also, the ability to deal with stressful events and turn them into valuable learning points. Often we take for granted how important soft skills are because we use them every day. Perhaps we don't really appreciate their impact on those around us.
Check out LinkedIn's or Udemy's Workplace Learning Reports. You'll see that every year the most desirable and in-demand skills for the future of work aren't technical skills like being able to code or being able to perform a knee replacement. They are things like emotional intelligence, resilience, the ability to learn and empathetic leadership.
But the problem with soft skills is that they're not actually soft at all. They're really pretty hard. There are lots of differnt power skills and it can be difficult to know where to start. Moreover, some people think that power skills like empathy, creativity and learning how to learn can't possibly be improved at all; you're either good at them or you aren't.
On my own journey into power skills, from surgeon to tech entrepreneur and host of the Human Performance Podcast, I've researched and interviewed hundreds of leaders. I've read even more cognitive psychology papers and books on everything around the topic. Boil down all the vital human skills that we use every day, those that people refer to as soft skills or which I call power skills. Most of them are learned through experience. All of them, like any skills, can be learned. If you commit to the process of learning and improving your power skills, your life will be changed for the better.
Look at the argument people make that skills like empathy or creativity can't be improved. It's the same argument that people applied to athletic ability and intelligence or in fact any kind of talent. Stanford psychology professor Carol Dweck's research into the topic of genetic ability versus learned ability is summarized in her book Mindset by the quote: "Hard work beats talent when talent fails to work hard." Genetics and social upbringing may give some people an initial advantage at things like public speaking or being empathetic. If you have a growth mindset and put in deliberate practice, just as you would if you were learning a technical skill like coding or surgery or playing an instrument, you'll get good very quickly. You'll probably surpass those who have innate talent but who don't commit to deliberate practice to improve their power skills.
The problem is that even though we use power skills every day, people just don't understand how to learn them. For those who do, honest feedback on personal skills like public speaking, empathy or leadership can be uncomfortable. Because they are so tied to our identity and who we are. Meaning, people just don't want to even try to get better. It's easier saying your emotional quotient is fixed and can't be improved than having that quite personal ability critiqued. Equally, if you're someone who is used to being a little quiet and introverted, it's going to take conscious effort to break out of your comfort zone and commit to deliberate practice to get better.
You therefore need to remove any attachment you might have to your own personality and the human skills you are learning and understand what you need to improve. One thing that can really help here is adopting a child-like or beginner's mind set. This is a concept outlined by Shunryu Suzuki in his book Zen Mind, Beginners Mind. It reminds us that we should accept and be open to all possibilities when learning something new. Just like a child would. And we should reflect on our past experiences but not let them hold us back. This is especially true of power skills. If you have had a bad experience of public speaking, you might never want to go through that experience again. Equally, if you've received feedback on your baseline soft skills. You might not want to internalize this. It can put you off deliberate practice and you end up quitting.
If you want to make a positive change, you need to commit to a process of honest self-reflection. Then practice to identify what areas of yourself you need to work on without worrying about being outside of your comfort zone. Reframe your brain to enjoy the practice rather than worrying about the outcome.
Related: Soft Skills are Critical Skills