Names matter. We have linguist S. I. Hayakawa to thank for making clear why: language influences how we think and act. And although it is possible to become overly sensitive to language, more often we err on the side of not recognizing its profound influence. I think the moniker “soft skills” illustrates that mistake.
Soft skills refer to a widely applicable skill set that’s not usually a part of the designated course content—think communication and listening skills, the ability to work with others (singly or in groups), and leadership skills. In one sense, referring to these skills as soft means they are amorphous, vague, and loosely defined in contrast to concrete skills like CPR, truss design, or horticulture. “Soft” connotes a sense of elasticity, gentleness, and compliance as opposed to rigidity, firmness, and strength. Interestingly, some abstract and loosely defined skills, such as critical thinking, don’t get dubbed with the soft skill descriptor.
In another sense, not only are soft skills less well-defined than concrete ones, but the name implies they lack substance. They get put in that touchy-feely category, more emotional than rational, skills that lack the rigor and robustness of legitimate course content. This meaning of “soft” conceals the complexity of these skills assuming instead that something soft is more likely easy than hard.
We all communicate and work with others, so we all have a level of soft skills. We may or may not see a problem with our skill level. I had lots of students object to taking a required communication course. As one told me, “I have years of experience talking.” Don’t we all, and don’t we all have years of misunderstandings in our families, in our communities, throughout the country, and around the world. We hear without listening. We make points without being persuasive. We tell others what to do to no avail. Soft skills don’t become effective through regular use alone.
Our curricula routinely include courses in communication, and those courses can build strong skill bases. But as we’ve come to recognize, students don’t learn to write well with one course in composition. Honing that skill requires work across the curriculum, and the same is true of what passes for soft skills. Students don’t learn to speak up, to make cogent arguments, to listen attentively, to collaborate, or to provide leadership in a single three-credit course. They need instruction, opportunities to practice, and constructive feedback across the curriculum.
Many programs have students regularly work together in groups, sometimes briefly and other times at length. That’s good preparation for how they’ll work in most professions. Much research further justifies inclusion of collaborative experiences. Students can learn course content from and with each other, but they don’t do so just because they’re put in groups. On the contrary, sometimes students leave group experiences convinced that working with others is a waste of time. Knowing something about how groups function changes the dynamic. If students understand what’s happening in a group, they’re in a better position to do something about it.
Regrettably, research also documents that most faculty are not teaching students much, if anything, about group dynamics (Bailey et al., 2015; Marks & O’Connor, 2013), and I suspect the same is true for communication skills and leadership. Of course, it’s understandable; we already have more content than we can teach, and we don’t have disciplinary expertise in the soft skills areas. But a little instruction can go a long way, especially if all of us do a little. Moreover, we can pick those areas relevant to the content and level of our courses. Instruction in leadership as well as opportunities to practice and obtain feedback fit with the goals of most capstone courses, whereas attention paid to participation and helping students over their fears of speaking up mesh with the objectives of those courses that introduce students to college learning.
Does thinking that these are soft skills make it easier for us to ignore their development? Does referring to them as such change how much time we devote to cultivating them? I don’t have definitive evidence that it does, but if I could change how we refer to these skills, I’d banish “soft” and replace it with “indispensable.”
Bailey, S., Barber. L. K., & Ferguson, A. J. (2015). Promoting perceived benefits of group projects: The role of instructor contributions and intragroup processes. Teaching of Psychology, 42(2), 79–83. https://doi.org/10.1177/0098628315573147
Marks, M. B., & O’Connor, A. H. (2013). Understanding students’ attitudes about group work: What does this suggest for instructors of business? Journal of Education for Business, 88(3), 147–158. https://doi.org/10.1080/08832323.2012.664579