Books to help me hone "soft skills"
February 9, 2014 10:00 AM   Subscribe

I'm in a demanding field where the use of "soft skills" is both necessary and difficult. What resources do you recommend to help me improve in this area?

I supervise ~15 people. The backdrop is a high-paced, cutting edge healthcare setting. We have work to do, and patients to take care of. At the same time, it is important for the front line staff to be happy, heard, understood, etc. Unfortunately, our reality is that, often, I'm unable to fulfill the staff's wishes, due to regulations, lack of resources, etc. I feel that I maintain good communication with them, but because often my answers are "no," they feel that I'm not listening to them, not communicating with them, not involving them in important decisions, etc. I need to improve my "soft skills" such that I'm listening better, and they feel I'm listening better, regardless of the outcome of our conversation. I need them to view me as their advocate (Which I am! The situation makes it difficult to see that, however.) My pressures to produce and keep the work moving are very high, so it's a very tricky situation. Ideally, I am looking for books, but would also consider seminars, classes, etc.
posted by JLovey to Work & Money (9 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
I'm not sure you can learn this through books.

Instead, find one or more "management mentors" at your organization. Not your own boss, but your peers or your peers' bosses. People you can sit down with once a week and talk over some of these things with.

Also, you can apply all your existing problem skills to this. Eg: They don't think you're listening? So what are you doing to specifically acknowledge their concerns?

How often do you have direct 1-on-1 meetings with your reports? Regular weekly or bi-weekly 1-on-1s can be very short "anything you want to talk about this week? no, okay, we'll talk next week". They also give employees a chance to raise issues that are harder to raise in group meetings. It's also your chance to ask for feedback as well. "You asked for x, and when I talked to my boss about it, they said no for these reasons... I got the feeling you weren't satisfied with that response. What else could I do to help clarify this?" etc
posted by colin_l at 10:20 AM on February 9, 2014

Reading over what I wrote, I think there's a theme: Soft skills, by their nature, are hard to pin down. That's why normal book-learnin' isn't as straight forward as it is for more technical skills. So generally, my suggestions about soft skills are to practice using soft skills: talk to people.
posted by colin_l at 10:26 AM on February 9, 2014

If your answer is often no, you need to figure out why people are asking you for things or for answers that need to result in the answer "no". Additionally, one of the ways I've learned to say no when people are giving input, asking to so something, etc etc, is to say SINCERELY, "I hear you on that. If we could, we'd do/say/use/stop ______. I appreciate that you're thinking about this and I hope you can help me as we do _____ since that's what's going to be our strategy for now. What do you need from me that will help make that happen?"

IME, soft skills are: actively listening; sincerely thanking people for their input; looking for compromises where possible; acknowledging time and effort spent; and honoring basic niceties while being firm. Don't prepare your NO while they're asking you something or telling you something. Doing so just makes you defensive and reactionary. Slow down. Really listen. Stall for time by asking things like, "Hmm, I'm not sure. Could you elaborate?" Get more data before saying no if you must. Then make that person your partner. "I want to get you these things and I'm sorry that I can't. What could we do in the interim to get you close to that so you can do what you need to do?"

You need to be on the line staff's side more. Show them that even if you have to say no.
posted by These Birds of a Feather at 10:40 AM on February 9, 2014 [8 favorites]

Also, start thinking about the people at your job who already have these skills down. Watch how they phrase things. Observe their speaking style and their way of gracefully attending to the needs of both sides of a situation. You'll learn more this way than you will reading a book on the topic (of which there are likely very few).
posted by These Birds of a Feather at 10:44 AM on February 9, 2014 [2 favorites]

There aren't quick fixes, you're embarking on learning a new craft. But along the way there can be moments of insight that make for step changes in your effectiveness.

Some books you might like:

How to Win Friends & Influence People
That's Not What I Meant!
Primal Leadership: Unleashing the Power of Emotional Intelligence

You might still be able to review this online course, or wait for the next run:

Inspiring Leadership through Emotional Intelligence

For listening and empathy skills that make a difference to people feeling heard, I also recommend:

The Gift of Therapy
posted by philipy at 10:59 AM on February 9, 2014 [2 favorites]

I like the manager tools podcast for this kind of thing. A lot of the advice and discussion is fairly obvious but they are good at articulating a lot of the dynamics involved with managing people that a person with more limited experience doesn't necessarily think clearly about.
posted by _cave at 11:00 AM on February 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

Crucial Confrontations was a good book. It's about dealing with broken promises, not meeting expectations, etc.

But I really agree with Those Birds of a Feather, especially the bit about 'what can we do in the meantime since we can't do X.'

I build systems at work that are important to the company, but on a individual user level are not popular. I try to work with people to find out what the specific problems they have with them are, and how I can help mitigate them. I'm not often able to give them exactly what they asked for. But usually I'm able to do something that helps if I've listened carefully and understand what they really need and not just what they asked for.
posted by Caravantea at 1:46 PM on February 9, 2014 [3 favorites]

Soft skills are basically reading between the lines and knowing how to "massage" the conversation so to speak. Yes, listen attentively, but it's mostly about acknowledging the concerns, even if you are unable to change anything. Most people just want to be heard. Empathize, apologize if necessary, but mostly communicate clearly that you understand their frustration/anger/etc. Try to rephrase the other person's side of the conversation so they know that you were listening. This is a skill that requires practice but at the heart of it is compassion and courtesy.

Nod, shake your head, sigh. Mirror the body language if it's someone you're speaking to in person. But you almost have to remove yourself or see yourself outside of you, if that makes sense and try to put yourself in their shoes. It's not necessarily about managing expectations, but moreso about easing or alleviating the burdens of frustration. Let them vent, then reassure and move on. Most times, you don't really have to do anything but understand that you know they feel there's a problem that should be corrected whether you can correct it or not.

Try reading the Fish book?
posted by lunastellasol at 9:33 PM on February 9, 2014

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