What are soft skills? (2019 update)

Updated: Jun 14, 2019


My thoughts about soft skills have moved on since 2017. Like many phrases in the English language, the term soft skills has emerged through social usage without definition, so is open to interpretation. Historically the phrase seems to have been coined for skills in dealing with people who are unpredictable compared to machines [E.g. see Jacobs (1973) and Whitmore and Fry (1974)]. Yeardley (2017)'s choice of definition has helped me: the skills needed for 'effective and productive interpersonal interactions' (p248).

Interaction implies anything that is achieved through communication: negotiation, leadership, collaboration etc. I have created this image to help explain that soft skills combine an individual's aims for any interaction with others, the effective communication skills to achieve those aims and the personal thinking skills (relating to thoughts/feelings) used with the communication skills.

Roles typically set aims for interactions. A doctor may want to hear a specific type of data from patients such as symptoms of possible immediate problems. A friend may want to hear all the details of a buddy's holiday. A manager may aim to get bulleted status report or a ‘task finished’ response. A therapist or parent might probe for deeper issues in client or child. A policeman may issues orders in an emergency.

The core of this image embeds a dependence on personal values, attitudes and characteristics that influence soft skills. The choice of personal philosophy, style and response during communication affects how soft skills are actually used, in addition to the aims of the interaction.

In any interaction, at least two of these images and connection(s) between them represent the full interaction between two or more people. We recognise connection as relationship such as the familiar ones of doctor-patient, manager-employee, friend-friend, parent-child. Effective communication thus depends on individual characteristics, motivations and skills of both parties in any relationship.

Not shown but implied in this image is that emotion can be attached to any communication and relationships associate criteria such as rapport, respect and trust.

This is my interpretation. How do you understand soft skills?

References:

Jacobs, T. O. (1973). The Evaluation of Leadership Skills. [Online- https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED087871.pdf ]

Whitmore, P. G., & Fry, J. P. (1974). Soft Skills: Definition, Behavioral Model Analysis, Training Procedures. Professional Paper 3-74.

Yeardley, T. (2017). ‘Training of new managers: why are we kidding ourselves?’, Industrial and Commercial Training, 49(5), 245-255.


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