explain to me this thing you call soft skills….

Those words – “soft skills” I hear so often. As a coach and HR Professional working in Leadership Development, I wrinkle up a little more every time I hear this phrase. People skills are not soft skills. Learning how to manage and lead people is not a soft task. It’s not an easy task and even if you do it naturally, there will always be skills that are hard to learn and very difficult to master.

In my career, some of the most difficult things I ever had to do were have tough honest conversations, or provide difficult feedback, or lead someone through change or a crisis, or become the bearer of terrible news, or remove someone from their job, or discipline someone, or be the one who is the very first to tell them they aren’t doing as good a job as they thought, or to be the leader wanting to change culture, or disagree with my boss or, or, or …….

Maybe I should stop there because that already sounds anything but soft to me. These aren’t soft skills perhaps in the way I consider that word soft used. I acknowledge the term is used to indicate that it’s not spreadsheets, data analysis and business development we are doing. Those things are definitely hard. Maybe soft is meant to imply that because its people related, it’s soft? In work terms, being soft can be considered an insult. In sporting terms it’s an insult to be soft. So – the language is just all messed up. In my short stint on the planet, soft people are the thoughtful, caring, sensitive and self-conscious ones. Much the way I’d like all leaders to be. 

Language is so important and I feel like the word soft doesn’t do these Leadership responsibilities any justice. They aren’t easy skills to learn either. I had a bit of a baptism of fire with my leadership skills (as I am sure most people do!) and I learned them without any education or “training”. I was thrust into a really tough job and had to just learn as I went along in the course of my normal working day running a business. Because that’s what we expect from our leaders right? That they show their skills, whatever texture – in the way they lead their teams. 

There is nothing soft about any of the skills we need, to do the work I talk about here. Soft skills insults the very tough, real life, day to day human tasks of leading people. Of being a role model and of calling out the hard stuff. It’s true, they are skills like any other, but calling them soft to me implies they are easy. They aren’t. 

If anyone has a better term, please let’s start having that conversation! 

No small amount of courage

I recently sent an email of thanks to my old therapist. She herself isn’t actually old, but you know what I mean.

I value her so highly and together, we worked through an enormous amount of change over six years of sharing her office. They were gruelling sessions and sometimes the toughest times of my life. Being able to go inwards and work on myself was a great privilege for me and a gift I will never forget.

She reminded me that the work we do on ourselves requires commitment and no small amount of courage. Let’s be honest – it’s a MASSIVE amount of courage we need – I think she understated that! Not just courage in showing up every week when at times it felt like I had nothing to talk about, but courage going to the dark places of shame and discomfort that have allowed me to move on and improve my life, my experiences and my world view.

I chose psycho-dynamic psychotherapy when I realised that not all of my relationships were going well. And I knew it was time to look inwards, to stop blaming other people and start looking at what I was doing that might not have been helping that.

We talked about over 50 years of learned behaviours, experiences, fears and aspirations and some of those days were golden moments and some of those days I would come home and cry on the couch for hours, remembering some of the things that made me who I am.

I wouldn’t trade any of them. In her words, she saw someone in our first meeting who had potential. Potential for change. Manifesting this potential as we well know, takes endurance to accept that there are parts of ourselves that need changing.  The most difficult part, is making sense of how we came to be this person, being able to bear those painful realisations and in turn allowing the person we want to be to emerge, the truer version of our self.

The most difficult part, is making sense of how we came to be this person, being able to bear those painful realisations and in turn allowing the person we want to be to emerge, the truer version of our self.

It took me a long time in therapy to unravel my true self. It felt like a returning to something familiar. I think we are all born with kindness and compassion in our hearts – and things happen along the way to us that make us protect ourselves, or change who we really are. It took me a while to uncover the real, strong, flowing source of kindness and compassion I have now. And I am still – and will continue to be, a work in progress. I am now fortunate to use my skills to help others be kind to themselves. To let ourselves off the hook – to stop beating up on ourselves. That stuff gets really boring after a while.

The coaching work I do is based on self-kindness and self-compassion. It’s not therapy – it is most definitely coaching. Kindness and compassion are tools we can all use in whatever version of self improvement we choose. It won’t end well if we continue to beat ourselves up as a way of motivating ourselves towards achieving our goals.

We are attracted to kindness and compassion in others – there’s no reason why we can’t start with ourselves. When we know ourselves well enough – we can start to understand our own behaviour. We can make sense of our own reactions and our own responses not just to ourselves but to others. It’s a critical skill when leading a team – or being in any position of leadership that we first know ourselves in a way that makes us confident, consistent and caring. There is a real place for this kind of leadership. It achieves so much more than a command and control mindset – but it does take courage. This Emily McDowell image sums all of that up – our true selves are always there. We are powerful, creative, resourceful and whole exactly the way we are. We might just need a helping hand in unravelling.

This is what I mean by being kind and compassionate to ourselves.