If you hate “touchy-feely,” this one’s for you

“Touchy-feely.” Soft skills. You know you need them, but it feels like pandering
to the weak and whiny. I get it – but has the time come for you to broaden your perspective?

If you’re hesitating, I’ll tell you something you probably already know intuitively: if you don’t improve your soft skills, you’ll limit your potential. Sure, you’ll get quickly promoted early in your career for the results you bring, but eventually, you’ll find yourself edged out by people who somehow manage to get the job done and connect with the people around them.

People are still people when they’re at work. As much as we might like the workplace to be an emotion-free zone – a sterile, completely rational environment – people are still people when they’re at work. They might hide the parts of themselves that don’t seem to align with the work environment, but underneath the armor, they are still people with emotions. And by “they,” I mean all of us, including you.

Yes, you have emotions, too.  No matter how logical and rational you are, you still have this little, non-rational part of your brain called the amygdala, and if your brain thinks your survival is threatened in some way (and believe me, this happens far more than you realize), your emotions take over.

And if you’re fully hijacked, you get that textbook sabertooth tiger “fight or flight” response. When your amygdala is hijacked, it can take 20 minutes for you to return to rational thought. You can probably easily recall a time when you completely overreacted to something only to wonder later why you reacted so strongly.

And the more analytical you are, the less effective you tend to be when your emotions are in the driver’s seat because you just haven’t had the practice. Not every negative encounter leads to a full hijack, but we all have our worries, and these worries lead to fear-based reactions.  Whether it’s about failure, or being marginalized, or appearing incompetent, or being disrespected, we are all triggered by certain circumstances or situations, and the more aware we are of our trigger points – and the potential trigger points of others – the better equipped we are to move through them gracefully.

“But people should just…” If that’s what you’re thinking, let’s look at the “shoulds:” people should know it’s just business and not take things personally; people should think more corporately and not worry so much about growing their fiefdom or stovepipe; people should collaborate and share information because that’s what’s best for the business; people should be innovative and take risks to grow the business. In every one of these shoulds lives the risk of failure or rejection, and by ignoring or invalidating the emotions involved, we miss the opportunity to improve the situation.

What’s more, people have a tendency to tie their worthiness (their identity and sense of value) to their accomplishments. And when it’s your rational logic versus someone’s need to keep their worthiness intact, you’re not going to get anywhere by trying to force your logical argument.

So, refusing to bother with improving your soft skills is a bit like refusing to wear your seat belt because people should be better drivers.

Improving your soft skills doesn’t mean compromising your value system. You can have empathy and hold someone accountable. You can validate someone’s perspective without agreeing with them. And you can significantly increase the possibility that your people will be innovative and take risks if you understand and mitigate their fears. In fact, growing your soft skills improves your ability to set boundaries and expectations, hold others accountable and have strong influence within your organization.

Building soft skills is really about building awareness of how humans are triggered by perceived threats, and most especially about building awareness of your own emotional triggers (yes, you have them, too). You know how frustrated, irritated and exasperated you feel? Those are signs of being triggered emotionally, and the more aware you are of how and why you are triggered, the better equipped you will be at successfully navigating the situation. Building self-awareness is fundamental to personal and professional growth.

It’s not about pretending.  I’m not talking about sucking it up and pretending you aren’t annoyed or being a suck-up and “playing the game,” and I’m definitely not saying you have to listen to people drone on and on about their problems or let subpar work slide. I’m talking about getting yourself to a place where you can live within your value system and respect others; where you can strongly hold your opinion and not be threatened by someone else’s; where you recognize your frustration for what’s underneath it and can move through it with ease.

Be courageous, and start building your soft skills.  So, the next time you have an opportunity to expand your soft skills, take it. It will take some courage because it’s always challenging to learn outside of our comfort zones and because soft skills in particular make us take a hard look at our thoughts, emotions and behaviors, and we don’t always like what we see. The best courses will focus on the fundamentals – building self-awareness and recognizing emotional triggers – rather than exclusively on practicing skills.

Carol Robert is a coach, instructor and organizational culture change agent. Her workshops, coaching and hands-on organizational interventions have helped hundreds shift their behavior to find success in their work and more courage and joy in their lives.