How do you design soft skills (client interaction) for a technically minded person.

I am hoping that I can pull from the many brilliant minds on this platform. In my current role, every time I interact with my Business Partners, the key message I get is - our audience(very technical) need more soft skills. 

In our training portfolio, we have a lot of soft skills training (videos, role-plays in person training - we attach a soft skills segment to everything) and I believe that our audience need to practice and practice more. One of my Business Partners will be helping set up some time for me to get in front of the select few that excel at this skill.

However, in order not to rule anything out, I would love to hear thoughts on how people have addressed this. How do you design soft skills training for a technically minded person? Thank much!

 

8 Replies
Dave Ferguson

Joe Harless, from whom I learned a great deal about instructional design and about improving performance, thought that the drawback to "soft skill" is its lack of a specific goal.

"Effective communication for what?" he'd ask (to pick a commonly identified and very soft skill). What's the accomplishment (or at least an accomplishment) where the technical people are falling short, and where a more specific set of soft skills could help them succeed?

I worked for a firm specializing in business-to-business electronic commerce. Often our technical people needed to explain what we did to client executives in manufacturing or sales or fulfillment. We refined "effective communications" to "making technical presentations to non-technical audiences." 

For that skill set, you could work with your SMEs to identify desired and especially undesired behavior and the effect the latter can have on the overall goal. Responses from the "client" in a scenario could help the technical person better perceive the client's priorities and match those to capabilities or features of a potential product or service.   (The VP of inventory doesn't care that you're using HTML5; she cares about where the shipment of left-handed blue widgets is and would like an answer from your software, fast.)

Bob S

Hi Audrey,

One of the best ways I've seen this work is to set the stage first for the need to change. There are many ways to do this including group activities/outings, vignettes, etc.  But one of the simplest and most effective is perhaps a work profile/personality course like DiSC.

While I prefer the AMA version, even the other DiSC versions are simple and effective (and have more support materials & videos). Your techies will instantly recognize "oh those people" that they have trouble being effective with.  And when you roll out the video clips on identifying and working with the different types it's light bulb city!   They will be ready to embrace the specific strategies listed for how to approach other folks and hopefully appreciate the need for the other soft skills you are providing.

Note: I should tell you I'm not typically a huge fan of this sort of thing and find things like MBTI, Big5, PI and most of the rest of them less than useful in the actual workplace.  But DiSC is less about how they "think", and more about how the "interact" and just simple and accurate enough to be easy to leverage.

Bob S

As an alternative way to show the need for change, I've also done this with some humorous posters....  (idea can be adapted for e-learning)

Imagine giant life sized images of your stereo typical techie with pocket protector, and your stereo typical sales person with cheap sport coat.  You can pre create some typical (exaggerated)  sayings that the OPPOSITE party will think they say and have the participants enjoy choosing between their favorite three to place on the poster in one of three slots.

Then focus on some positive attributes of both groups and what motivates each of them. Share why that's important and how BOTH viewpoints are important if the overall team is to succeed.

Finally, have them go back and change their OWN poster and recreate sayings (same topics) in a way that addresses the other sides needs.

Summarize the learnings/ key strategies.

Trina Rimmer

Hi Audrey. Looks like everyone's weighing in with some great ideas here! Thanks for sharing your question with the community.

As I was reading your post, I kept wondering about how these technical roles are being screened and filled. Have you considered having a conversation with your Business Partners about how they're hiring for these positions? Are the soft skills they're looking for a job requirement...or just a nice-to-have skills?

I've generally found that it's easier to hire for those attributes (and the right attitude), rather than using training to fill the gaps. I realize that this type of conversation may not be helpful for your immediate needs, but it could be a worthwhile one to have—particularly if you can positively influence hiring practices (e.g., working on building better interviewing skills for hiring managers). That way your precious training resources can be focused on up-skilling people who already have what it takes to be successful in the role.

Anyway, just some food for thought. Thanks again for sharing your question with us!

 

Natalia Mueller

Hi Audrey,

A simple thing that makes a big difference for my highly technical audience is that the examples need to be realistic to them. Really broad examples or scenarios that exaggerate or use extreme situations don't work at all. As soon as they are recognized as not likely to happen in their environment, they tend to disregard them completely. 

 

Enes Karahasanovic

Hi Audrey,

I read your initial post a couple of times, and if I am correct it co-relates with the symptom I received/recognized at one of the companies where I was previously employed.

This was a large corporate company where managers specially recognized that their IT staff is low on soft-skills, specially when communicating with people. They do their job perfectly and they don't really care of how they communicate with people.

This problem is larger than it appears - it touches also the mind-set and behaviour of people. Having a couple of 1day soft-skills training during the year will simple not make a deep impact. What happens in the classroom is very short-lived, because these people need to experience these soft-skills moments in everyday work in order to have a permanent change.

Fortunately, you can rely on so much more tools than simple soft-skills training. Coaching, feedback, setting soft-skills performance objectives, cross-functional rotations, international rotations, joint soft-skills projects, experience sharing events, are just some of them. The best is to involve as many tools as possible, and create a long-term process which at the end will bring recognizable results. I like joint soft-skills projects for technically-skilled people, because it puts them into the environment they haven't experienced before. For example, if have problem with car mechanics, put them into the project of having to sell cars. It you have IT staff with soft-skills problems, put them in the contact centre role to communicate with customers.

These people need some "shake" in order to realise that there is other side of the coin.

I don't know if you work in the HR department, but generally HR could help heavily in this topic, and having a manager support of the employees is an absolute must.

Hope this helps, cheers.