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Posted by on Jun 9, 2010

A very hard soft skill

It is always interesting to hear people talk about the “soft skills.” One technician once described these as the “non-critical” competencies – things that are optional, not required. Things like communication, problem-solving, motivating others and engaging a team.

The whole phrase “soft skills” sets up the domain of leadership and management competencies as frilly, puffy and frivolous. The not-so-subtle message is: Anybody can do them, but they’re really not that important.

Other blogs will address whether they are important. This post asks the question: How hard is a soft skill? Let’s find out by randomly picking one: empathy.

First, empathy has nothing to do with sympathy. Two completely different concepts, so let go of any associations you may have around a soft shoulder.

Second, you should know that empathy has been described as the cornerstone of emotional intelligence. (You may think emotional intelligence is non-critical, too, so just for a minute forget about the mounting evidence that links emotional intelligence to performance.)

So what is empathy? And why should you care?

Empathy is the capability to see things as another person sees them. Empathy means you can “get” how someone else experiences, perceives, thinks or feels about an issue.

Let’s get right to the hard part of this soft skill: Imagine you are having a disagreement with someone. He or she wants to handle a pressing, significant problem one way; you want to handle it in a completely different way. To amp it up a bit, let’s say there’s something important on the line for you personally and professionally in this. If it goes wrong, you might lose respect, status or power in the organization. What’s more, the other person in this drama irritates you. Sometimes, a lack of respect and candor has been shown.

Given this, how easy is it for you to see the other person’s perspective?

If you’re thinking, “In such a case, I wouldn’t care how he or she sees it!” then we’re done before we start. You cannot connect, communicate or work jointly with such a mental model.

Is it starting to seem like this work might be hard, not so soft?

Let’s say you grit your teeth, and based on the above, decide that you want to give it a shot. You’re going to try to really understand the issue as the other person sees it.

We might start with questions: “How do you see it? What is important to you in this? What are your concerns and hopes?”

The hard part may be around really listening without leaping instantly to judgment. How long can you stay in the posture of curiosity and openness before moving into judgment and closure?

Further, what happens within you as you suspend judgment, try to see another perspective and not pull the rip cord? For people experimenting with this behavior, two things usually emerge.

First, they realize they did not have a monopoly on the truth – there may be a kernel or larger piece of truth in what the other person is saying. The great saboteur of development – defensiveness – serves to keep that uncomfortable reality at arm’s length.

Second, something in them changes. They broaden, “horizontalize” and acquire a larger, more powerful perspective.

Both of these are good things.

The final point to make here is that if you think of a group of people who can’t make anybody do anything, and who rely solely on influence, persuasion and motivation to change behavior, people in sales come to mind. One recurring theme in the literature around sales (and actually, we’re all in sales, since every day we are selling our ideas, opinion and beliefs) is that you cannot sell anything to anybody unless you really understand them, how they see things, and what they want.

Which brings us back to empathy.

See what happens when you start listening in a way that shows a genuine intention to really see things the way others see them – especially when there is a difference of some magnitude.

As with most things in leadership development, you can try this one at home. The next time you and a family member are arguing about something, step back and ask yourself if you can really see the issue through the other person’s eyes.

One thing I can tell you for you for sure about this (and every other) soft skill. It isn’t easy. It’s hard. But it’s worth it.


  1. Hear, hear. I spend a lot of time looking for TV clips of good and bad management, and next to humility, empathy is one of the hardest things to dig up. It makes sense, of course — empathy cuts down on drama, which is what most shows are trying to amplify.
    Thanks for the post!

    • They say comedy is tragedy plus time.

  2. Dear Mark,
    I will definitely RT your post on Twitter. I so agree that there is nothing “soft” or unimportant about people-skills. Unless a person is going to work in a cave, a professional needs occupational skills (aka practice skills) and the interpersonal or people-skills to communicate that the occupational expertise s/he has.

    I have spent 20 years teaching these people-skills to IT, engineers, and other analytic type professions. I do not believe the myth that techies can’t learn or use great people-skills. I have seen thousands do it. Some are naturally good at it and others have learned it with training from me and other interpersonal skills experts.

    Bravo to your focus on empathy and seeing all aspects of an issue by listening to others and through their eyes.

    I offer the following two posts to expand your discussion. Many thanks for your wonderful post.

    I welcome your comments and insights as well.
    Best wishes,
    Kate Nasser, The People-Skills Coach

    • Kate, thanks for your reply. I agree that anyone can learn these skills. It is great to see a technical person who has also worked on the people side. These people are generally in great demand.

  3. You made a couple of excellent points Mark. Speaking as a technical leader, I completely agree with your point regarding the difficulty of learning “soft” skills. Learning soft skills takes time, effort and practice just as any technical skill does. Technical people often discount these skills until someone takes the time to explain how they can increase their effectiveness and help them get what they ask for. I also like to point out to engineers that communication and business skills make us more valuable and marketable.

    Finally, I think your point about learning to see the truth in other people’s point of view is also something that technical people have some difficulty doing. I believe that is because we tend to see things in “either / or” terms instead of “both / and”. That is another tough skill to learn.

    • Becki, thanks for your comment. When people talk about this being “hard” to learn, I believe it’s a different kind of hard than, say advanced programming, or rocket science. I think the difficulty is in two areas. The first is people actually valuing it/believing in it. As you say, if you can link it to their career development, they generally are more receptive. (There is one troubling aspect to this — that it remains about the individual and not anyone else, particularly — but it is what it is.)
      The second one is even more challenging, and that is one of competence. People who have not worked at understanding others, managing conflict, being empathetic, listening well, or a variety of other skills I believe, deep down, feel incompetent. There are very powerful defensive maneuvers used in such cases, such as belittling those who are talking about it.

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