Jun 252013

OK, let’s not think about skills, but focus on soft? What does that word con­jure up for you? How do you inter­pret it, par­tic­u­larly in com­par­ison to hard.

There’s an ongo­ing debate about the term soft skills, that goes some­thing like, “when soft skills are the most import­ant C21st skills why do we use this demean­ing term?”


The term soft skills makes sense…

it is not demeaning!


But it’s inter­est­ing to con­sider why this think­ing persists.

waterfall / soft skillsFirst, a clarification:

  • When linked to skills, the term hard does not mean dif­fi­cult. Hard skills are know­ledge or tech­nical aptitude, skills which we learn, or are ‘input’, as they don’t ori­gin­ate with us. In this con­text, hard means solid, tan­gible, specific.
  • When linked to skills, the term soft does not mean easy. Soft skills are the traits and abil­it­ies of atti­tude and beha­viour, which we ‘access’ and develop, as they are basic human cap­ab­il­it­ies. In this con­text, soft means open-ended, fluid, context-dependent.

Using these two con­trast­ing terms provides us with a neat distinction.

So why the inter­min­able, neg­at­ive rum­blings about the word soft?

At Bar­rier Break­ers we thought long and hard about the wis­dom of align­ing the term soft skills to our work, recog­nising that, how­ever undeserved, its bad name could have a det­ri­mental impact. Many sens­ible people advised us against using it — par­tic­u­larly when it came to our Inspir­ing Soft Skills Devel­op­ment tagline — and sug­ges­ted we’d be bet­ter off with ter­min­o­logy that had more inher­ent gravitas.

So why did we ignore their sage advice and choose to embrace the con­tro­ver­sial term so wholeheartedly?


In ques­tion­ing why there’s wide­spread resistance

to the term soft skills

we reveal why there’s res­ist­ance to the skills themselves


As we’re about break­ing bar­ri­ers, we reckoned we had to address this fun­da­mental one!


When you think of soft, what comes to mind?


Is it some­thing easy?

The ‘soft option’?

Per­haps it’s limp or flaccid?

Or soggy and floppy?

Is it weak?

Or maybe it’s…just too feminine?

Here are some coun­ter­act­ing thoughts:

  • soft skills are enorm­ously com­plex, chal­len­ging and potent
  • soft skills are about highest level human functioning
  • soft skills under­pin all human activ­ity, includ­ing our abil­ity to acquire hard skills

And if you find your­self think­ing that soft is inferior, remem­ber this:


Water is fluid, soft, and yielding.

But water will wear away rock,

which is rigid and can­not yield.

As a rule, whatever is fluid, soft, and yielding

will over­come whatever is rigid and hard.

This is another paradox:

what is soft is strong.


Lao Tzu


If you like this post, join our news­let­ter to receive monthly barrier-breaking ideas for your soft skills development…PLUS imme­di­ate access to a 16-page art­icle from The Jazz of Busi­ness: Lead­er­ship in a New Groove