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Are Soft Skills Learned or Inborn?

Are Soft Skills Learned or Inborn?

conversation - high five!

Several years ago I wrote a series on Soft Skills and their development – this is an updated repost of the third post in that series from October 2015.

Soft Skills: Nature or Nurture? Are you born with them or are they learned? It’s the old chicken and the egg argument, which comes first? A quick review of the discussion in the research reveals the consensus that we are born with these skills, but like any other, they can be improved over time, with practice. Just as we go to the gym to exercise our muscles, we can exercise our soft skills. Learning to listen more effectively and then practicing that skill will improve our abilities as a communicator. Becoming more aware of how our reactions change in response to different situations will help us to manage our emotional reaction to them, and in time, will allow us to reduce stress and conflict. On the other hand, not exercising these skills will leave them undeveloped. I have found through my experience working as a coach that it comes down to self-awareness. As clients become more self-aware of how they are acting and/or reacting, they are able to start modifying their behaviour, strengthening the specific soft skill they are focusing on.

Because we all have our own preferences and ways of moving through the world, some soft skills may be more difficult to learn than others. But if we think back, there are also aspects of our hard skill sets that were difficult at first, though they now come quite naturally to us. For example, think back to when you were first learning to drive. Do you remember how it felt the first few times you took the wheel? I definitely do. I remember how difficult it was to use just the right amount of pressure on the accelerator, turning the steering wheel at the same time, while also checking the rear and side view mirrors. There was so much to do all at the same time! But before long those actions become natural, almost like breathing. We don’t think twice about all the “over the shoulder” checks or side view mirror checks. Even putting on the seat belt is automatic.

We develop soft skills in the same way we develop hard skills – with practice. One way to do that is to seek out people who seem to be able to demonstrate effortlessly those skills that you find challenging, and spend time with them. Another way is to seek opportunities to practice in which the risk of failure is low, until you feel confident in your ability. You don’t have to be born a networker or an empathetic person – you can learn and develop these skills throughout your career. Hiring a coach to work with you is a great way to grow and develop your soft skills. A skilled coach can ask penetrating, challenging questions to get you thinking deeply about where you are in terms of your soft skills and assist you in working to strengthen them.


Parts of this post were adapted from “10 Soft Skills You Need” Global Courseware (2015)

John Whitehead coaches individuals and organizations in becoming more effective by helping them improve their interpersonal communications, emotional intelligence and resiliency.

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