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ATD Blog

Targeted Soft Skills Training

Thursday, August 15, 2019

There is widespread agreement that soft skills are important, and equally widespread definitions on what constitutes a soft skill. Do a quick web search; according to the sea of literature, somewhere between six and 135 skills are needed to be a soft skill success—making things difficult for trainers tasked with developing soft skills training.

How do we decide what should be included? While the numbers are radically different, certain terms appear more than others: communication, teamwork, work ethic, adaptability, problem solving, creativity, critical thinking, and leadership, for example. Even if you set out to develop training for the soft skills mentioned most often, it would be a very difficult task.

Another challenge is that some traits are fairly hardwired in people. Characteristics such as adaptability, work ethic, and extroversion are part of a person’s fundamental nature. For example, teamwork is touted as a desired soft skill, but collaboration with a team is painful for introverts who prefer solitude and thrive alone (and introverts comprise a third to half the population). We can value these skills, but is it realistic to think that all people can develop all of them? No.

Training companies that say they do soft skills training are misleading you. No one has the power to transform every employee. A more reasonable approach is to target specific skills to specific jobs and particular employees.

Don’t say: “Our company will be giving soft skills training to all of our employees.”


Do say: “This particular task demands creativity and problem solving” or “This job demands excellent communication skills.”

Don’t attempt to develop every soft skill; narrow the focus. Make sure your training objectives are realistic, necessary, and likely to succeed.


Additionally, your terms should be as targeted as the training.

Imagine a company saying, “We want all of our people to have good employee skills.” That sounds good but what does it mean? It’s too general to convey an actionable goal. Communication skills? That sounds good too. Who could possibly argue with that? I can—the term is so broad it tells me nothing about what is really needed. Written communication skills? If so, then what kind of writing? Business emails? Training manuals? Tweets? Grants? Proposals? These are all distinct and someone good at one of them may not be proficient at another.

Avoid using broad terms; describe exactly what you offer. Don’t design communication training but instead design an email writing training or a presentation skills training. (You can’t gloss over presentation skills as part of a generic communications skills training. It won’t work.)

Soft skills are power skills; they are real skills. Soft skills are also really hard. Target your soft skills training and have a more powerful impact by determining what piece of which skill is crucial for the organization, for a particular employee, and for a specific job, and using precise language.

About the Author

Erik Palmer is an author and consultant from Colorado. In his previous careers, he spent time as a floor trader on a Chicago commodity exchange and managed a commodity trading office for a major Chicago brokerage firm, becoming the company’s national sales leader. Palmer moved into the classroom and became an educator. He was the teacher of the year in one of the nation’s top school districts. Now in his third career, Palmer brings his unique experiences to his work as a consultant, speaker, and author. He is a frequent keynote speaker at conferences for educators, educational leaders, and training professionals. He has led workshops across the United States and around the world. Palmer focuses on communication skills. He shows adults how to communicate well in business and social situations with an emphasis on teaching leaders how to become more effective speakers.

Palmer’s most recent book is Own Any Occasion: Mastering the Art of Speaking & Presenting. Other book include Well-Spoken: Teaching Speaking to All Students; Digitally Speaking: How to Improve Student Presentations with Technology; Teaching the Core Skills of Listening & Speaking; Researching in a Digital World; and Good Thinking: Teaching Argument, Persuasion, and Reasoning. Palmer is a program consultant on Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s Into Reading and Into Literature language arts programs.
You can follow Erik on Twitter (@erik_palmer) or contact him through his website

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This one is a struggle for me time and time again. How to get someone to BE CURIOUS! :)
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I saw value in this post immediately, and thought of ways I can apply it at my organization. A good example is the "Communication" issue you highlighted- currently, many of our job descriptions say "good communication skills"; I'm working with department heads to be more task-specific and outline which communication they'll need (how to report non-conforming materials, for example). I believe that this will lead to better understanding of job functions for both line employees and supervisors.
Excellent! Better understanding of job functions for both employees and supervisors will definitely result from your initiative.
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Rightly said, Soft Skills are POWER SKILLS. This power leads the professionals even when they exhibit the technical skills as well.
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