Communication – Essential Skill
We’ve been there. Sitting in an audience listening to a rousing keynote or participating in an engaging workshop, and the presenter just gets “it.” She uses words to inspire. Movements and gestures to shape information. She does more than present a speech; she connects with the audience. This speaker inspires the audience to think, even reassess.
What the speaker “gets” is communication. In its most general form, communication has been defined as the sending and receiving of messages. In business, “communication” has been labeled a “soft skill. “Soft” as in easy to fold; not hard or firm, and calling someone “soft” has the negative connotation meaning “sensitive,” not strong and empowering. (Not that being sensitive is a bad thing, but sadly, in business it be a weakness).
As early as 1959, the military described “communication” as a soft skill. By the late 1960s, the military started using more technology and found completing the job effectively required more interaction and communication with others. They discovered the social skills necessary to motivate and lead and even win wars incorporated skills that had not been defined or fully studied. The 1968 U.S. Army officially introduced a training doctrine known as “Systems Engineering of Training” defining “soft skills” as “(1) important-job-related skills and (2) which involve little or no interaction with machine; that is, we don’t know much about the physical and social environments…those job functions about which we know a good deal are hard skills and those about which we know very little about are soft skills.”
Here lies the problem. Managers continue to want competent and communicative employees, yet they do not know how to train them or expect them to figure it out or may not want to invest money in training “soft skills,” even though they are important and essential to get the job done. Studies by Stanford Research Institute and the Carnegie Mellon Foundation confirm that having 75% of long-term job success resulted from soft skills and only 25% from technical skills (Sinha, 2008). Three key functional elements for professional success include: people skills, social skills, and personal career attributes. Nobel Prize winner James Heckman claims having these attributes also can predict success in life and programs that teach these skills have an important place for public policy.
So, how do you engage in this essential skill?
- Tune into the person and context.
- React appropriately with compassion.
The real work comes from reading the situation. An influential speaker tunes into the person, the context, and truly listens, then, reacts and connects. All of these behaviors may not be innate to an individual. Yes, effective communication is hard to define. Yes, we may know it when we see it. And, yes, it should be valued and labeled “essential.” Effective communication depends on people, place, and persona, and that’s hard to do well. We need sensitivity to connect in communicative situations. These “soft” skills become hard, but let’s start by labeling “communication” as an “essential” not “soft” skill.