Communication is Not a "Soft" Skill

Hard or soft, today’s professionals need all the tools they can acquire. Maybe we should just call them “skills.” And call it a day.

Of the soft skills, communication merits a deeper look. Should we treat communication as a technical skill, replete with training, education, and repetitive practice? Let’s dive in.

The consideration of “soft skills” presents an evolution in how we think about management, particularly human resources. I place the term in quotes because there is no hard definition of soft skills; the descriptor means different things to different people. Generally, soft skills are non-technical skills that help people thrive in the workplace by improving their interactions with others. Skills like communication, creativity, problem-solving, time management, work ethic, inter-personal skills, conflict resolution. Everyone has a different bucket of favorites.

Hard skills are the job-specific skills attained through training and education – the technical expertise of computer programmers, mechanics, accountants, engineers, statisticians, electricians, plumbers, even librarians. Hard skills range broadly from mastering Microsoft 365 to understanding fluid dynamics or removing a gall bladder.

Hard skills occupy the top spot on the work hierarchy. That’s fair to some degree; licensure depends on the acquisition of hard skills. But the distinctions are not clear cut. Soft is a regrettable adoption of nomenclature. We consider hard to be defined, solid, quantifiable, tangible. Hard as a rock. Soft is intangible, adaptable, personal, difficult to quantify, innate. Soft as a…pillow?

Here’s the rub. Another opposite of hard is easy – and soft skills are anything but.

For example, problem solving almost always makes the soft skill list. But isn’t problem solving the fundamental currency of STEM fields? Mathematics, architecture, engineering, medicine…not only is problem-solving inherent in all, but there are also highly specific rules for how problems are to be solved.

Some soft skills are innate aspects of personality: empathy, compassion, honesty. But the soft skills leveraged in the workplace are not innate. Communication is foremost among them. Yes, there are natural communicators. There are also natural mathematicians, but we don’t suggest that their skills are soft.

When Tom Hanks elicits a deeply emotional response because of the way he portrays a character, he’s not exhibiting soft skills. Yes, he is innately talented. But what you see on screen is technical skill, developed through thousands of hours of deliberate, specifically applied effort at perfecting his craft.

As a leader, improving communication skills among your team produces tangible results. Effective communication improves efficiency in workflow, documenting processes, employee evaluation, internal control, morale, defining goals and objectives, and effective delegation, among many other benefits. Strategic communication is its own academic discipline, regularly incorporated in a business course of study, right alongside accounting and MIS. Here are a few examples of where technical communication training can be leveraged to improve workplace outcomes:

  • Facilitation
  • Crisis Response
  • Presentation (both virtual and in-person, including the incorporation of technology)
  • Active Listening
  • Performance Evaluation
  • Writing (most IT shops have a cadre of highly trained communicators; we literally call them technical writers).

In the public sector, professional development budgets are stretched thin, but even a few hours of training in communication goes a long way. Conveying and translating information among employees and across departments is among the most essential of leadership tasks. As an employee, the ability to convey information effectively is often the crucial differentiator between career advancement and stagnation.

Communication is not a soft skill.

Hard or soft, today’s professionals need all the tools they can acquire. Maybe we should just call them “skills.” And call it a day.

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