Preparation is one of the most obvious yet most misunderstood aspects of learning soft skills. Imagine you’re heading off to lead a meeting, make an important pitch for your company, or have a difficult conversation. It’s obvious in these situations that you want to prepare yourself for what you’re going to do or say. But what we often miss when learning soft skills is preparing to manage ourselves – especially when we start to feel the stress and pressure of the real-life situation.
Sadly, corporate training for these situations is notoriously ineffective. We learn new skills in safe situations with few repercussions for mistakes, yet we often have to perform in pressure-filled situations with the potential for great consequences. Our scripted remarks are of little use in unscripted and unpredictable situations.
To learn soft skills in a way that truly prepares us for what we’ll face when it really matters, we can take a few lessons from a different arena where learning, development, and performance are essential: professional sports.
One key tenet of professional sports coaching, for example, is to prepare people in the most realistic contexts possible. When professional football teams prepare for their next opponent, they’ll take into account the likely conditions they’ll face. If the stadium the team is playing in is going to be noisy, coaches like Bill Belichick of the New England Patriots will play extremely loud music at practice to mimic game-time conditions. Belichick has even been known topour water on practice balls to prepare the team for wet game-day weather.
Although we don’t always think along these lines in a business context, it’s certainly possible. For example, you might work on rehearsing your pitch to potential VCs in front of a crowd of colleagues you’ve coached to pepper you with difficult questions. You might create situations where a VC is late to the meeting — or rushing you to finish your pitch in half the time you had planned. You might also do the session in a setting that mimics what you’ll likely encounter in the real world, whether that’s a noisy coffee shop or an overheated conference room.
In most professional sports, scouts do extensive research on their next opponents to understand their strengths, weaknesses, and tendencies. They then plan for these tendencies in training sessions and develop potential plays where they can take advantage of these predispositions in an actual game. Similarly, in soft skills training, companies can teach people the likely and possible behaviors and responses they’ll encounter in a particular situation, so employees are ready. However, as noted above, this can lead to awkwardly scripted moments that fall flat in real life. So both top sports teams — and star performers — go further. Once they’ve identified what they can expect, they think about what might come as a surprise. Instead of showing your team one version of an opponent’s potential play, the savviest coaches will show multiple versions. They might introduce something players have never seen — or in a way they’ve never seen it. Unpredictable simulations are common practice in teaching hospitals, the military, and evendisaster response teams. Push yourself to come up with as many possible scenarios as you can.
The hard work in learning soft skills comes from having to apply them in complex and unpredictable performance situations. By sensitizing yourself to the actual challenges you’ll face in real situations, you’ll become more flexible and adaptable, and have a far greater chance of succeeding in the situations that matter most.