4 Ways to Make Soft Skills Coaching Stick

Developing soft skills is a task that takes time, clear focus on the uniqueness of each individual, and sensitivity to how difficult and uncomfortable fundamental change can feel.

When it comes to helping others develop soft skills in today’s workplace, everyone agrees on two things: 

First, soft skills, especially those involving communication at the executive level, are essential to success and advancement within an organization. They determine how effectively people interact with others, how they manage people and conflict, and how they lead. 

The second thing we can agree on is that developing soft skills is challenging. Research shows us that businesses are frustrated with the lack of soft skills in new hires. MBA programs struggle to address skill development head on. Businesses use assessments to identify strengths and developmental opportunities in their employees, but assessment alone will not develop the skills leaders need. 

Soft skills development requires not only taking a deep look inside ourselves to identify our strengths and shortcomings, it also involves reinforcing or changing habitual behaviors. 

My purpose here is to talk about the challenges people face when developing communication-related soft skills and offer some guidelines about what successful development requires from you as a coach. To begin, skill development involves three phases from the coachee’s perspective: awareness, assessment, development. 

  • Awareness: Skill awareness is the understanding of what skills are required to succeed in a variety of situations. Books and articles focusing on soft skills are all about this phase. Awareness provides a good foundation, but it does not lead directly to improved skills any more than reading a book about golf immediately improves your game.
  • Assessment: Soft skill assessment is more personal and specific. The simplest type of assessment might be self-reflection or feedback from managers or peers. More formal assessments—such as the MBTI, Social Styles, DiSC, Bates ExPI, and Emotional Intelligence (EQ) 360s—all have merit because they focus on clearly defined traits and help us see our fundamental strengths and weaknesses. This stage is like looking at a video of your golf swing. It’s helpful, but it also could be discouraging and overwhelming. 
  • Development: The final phase is about learning to use specific skills in a conscious, intentional way. It’s about trusting what you’re good at and changing old habits when necessaryThis is the most challenging phase in the process because it requires perspective and prioritization. At this point, people need the outside perspective of a coach. Sticking with the golf analogy, this is where you become the golf pro. 

4 Recommendations for Soft Skills Coaching

1. Respect the challenges people face. Soft skills are never developed from scratch. People use the behaviors involved instinctively every day. Some of these behaviors work well, and some of them may not. Regardless of their effectiveness, these behaviors are habitual. When we set out to help others develop skills, we are asking people to change their habits— habits they are accustomed toThat type of change is never easy, and coaches must be sensitive to that. 

2. Understand that it’s different for everyone. Even if people assess in a similar way and share the same challenges, their path to improvement will be their own. This is because improving these skills—changing behaviors—is about identifying what lies beneath the behavior itself. Does someone avoid conflict because they find it counterproductive or because they are uncomfortable with the emotions involved? Does a leader seem to lack empathy because he or she is a poor listener or because he or she lacks patience? The answers determine how the coach addresses each skill.

3.  Work from the inside out. Soft skill development is about helping people make the appropriate decision in the moment. Emotional intelligence focuses on this level of self-awareness. Taking advantage of self-awareness, though, requires specific skills, those skills that help people stay in the moment, connect with other people, and pay attention to their reactions. The successful use of soft skills, then, must begin with helping others think and act appropriately in moments of stress and to focus on others even when it would feel so much easier not to. 

4. Pay attention to what improvement feels like. Improvement involves changing instinctive behavior. So, at first, the changes you recommend probably will not feel natural or right to the person you’re coaching. It’s important for leaders to understand that something that feels instinctively natural and right actually might not be getting the intended results. Coaches should respect these feelings and use them to guide the coaching process. 

Developing soft skills is not an insurmountable task. But it is a task that takes time, clear focus on the uniqueness of each individual, and perhaps most of all, sensitivity to how difficult and uncomfortable fundamental change can feel. It is worth the effort, though, since soft skills are central to success at every stage of a career, and the farther up a person goes, the more important this becomes. 

Dale Ludwig is president of Turpin Communication, where he works as a presentation and facilitation skills trainer and coach. He is the co-author of “The Orderly Conversation: Business Presentations Redefined” and “Effective SMEs: A Trainer's Guide to Helping Subject Matter Experts Facilitate Learning.” Ludwig has a Ph.D. in communication and founded Turpin in 1992. For more information, visit: www.turpincommunication.com