Soft skills don’t grow on trees: you must work to develop them

Dec 11, 2016

Soft skills don’t grow on trees. You must work at them.  No, really work because, like trees, soft skills take time to grow.

In my last blog, I explained the three things you must do to develop your soft skills while still at university. In this blog, I want to focus on the process of developing soft skills and the mindset you should have while acquiring them.

  1. Be patient.

    Give yourself time to develop the soft skills you need. If at first you don’t succeed – or nothing seems to be happening – keep at it. An irate customer or difficult colleague caught you off guard? Can’t wrap your head around those complex ideas? It happens to all of us. Just get back on track as soon as you can. University of British Columbia brain researcher Dr Lara Boyd says “increased struggle leads to more learning and greater structural changes in the brain”. So, when we find something particularly difficult it is a good sign we are going in the right direction. Your brain is working, first to create the chemical connections required for short term memory, and then the functional and structural neural connections required for long term memory. Don’t give up just because it’s hard or slow.

  1. Be attentive.

    Take notice of what is happening in your environment. Although things can happen quite quickly at work, try to notice learning as it is happening or learning opportunities as they arise. Do you need to be resilient, show empathy or to use your initiative? Are you missing out on the opportunity to learn from that difficult teamwork situation that has just arisen? Notice the tensions, anxieties or uncertainties as they are good indications your brain is attempting to make a connection here. Manage those emotions and situations to your advantage.

  1. Be reflective.

    You must also reflect on learning after it has happened. Monitoring one’s learning helps more than people often think. Not only does it test what you know but it also provides invaluable inspiration that will motivate you to keep going whenever you have an off day. Jot it all down in your notebook as evidence of progress. It will also help you understand how you learn best.

  2. Be progressive.

    Look for ways to keep improving your skills. Think of the muscle-builder. He or she keeps adding increasingly heavier weights to help the (specific) muscle get stronger and stronger. Do the same with your soft skills. In fact, in Talent is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else, Geoff Colvin makes the case that this is the difference. Most professionals never move beyond a standard level of proficiency because once they feel they have reached a stage of knowing enough they switch off learning. Be different. Never stop.

  1. Be open-minded.

    Feed your soft skills from a wide range of sources. A tree doesn’t survive and grow by water alone but also by absorbing sunlight and nutrients from the soil. It needs all three to produce the energy it needs to grow. Likewise, look around for a variety of methods and sources to provide energy to the development of your soft skills. For example, use books, videos and podcasts alongside your practice. Approach your understanding of each soft skill from a different perspective. Be creative. The more you do this, the stronger and quicker the neural connections in your brain will develop. And you will soon see the long-term acquisition of the soft skills you desire.

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