Soft Skills and the Self-Awareness Paradox

🕑 4 minutes read | Feb 28 2020 | By Becky Gendron

Across most of the soft skills (and many of the technical) is a ubiquitous prerequisite. We need to be sufficiently aware of ourselves to be capable of seeing opportunities for change. While we usually view self-awareness as an enabler to other soft skills like communication, time management, leadership, or negotiation, some soft skills are much more interconnected. It’s hard to imagine unconscious bias or emotional intelligence, for example, without a significant focus on self-awareness.

So, how do we teach self-awareness if learners aren’t at least a little self-aware at the outset? Some have called this chicken-and-egg dilemma the self-awareness paradox. We tend to think that we can gauge self-awareness by how receptive and positive learners are to the soft skills training. A lack of self-awareness, however, doesn’t necessarily manifest itself as resistance or negativity. We’ve all seen leaders embrace an idea as good-for-others without then realizing the implications for themselves.

What is Discovery?

Too often, we think discovery equates to new information, something previously unconsidered or unexplored. That certainly may be the case with some technical skills, but our experience can be quite different with soft skills where discovery is more of a recognition or awareness. Consider the last time you attended some sort of soft skills workshop where you went in wondering what new information you could possibly learn. Of course, you’re not thinking you know it all or that you’ve already aced everything there is to know, but, still, you might feel as though you’ve heard it all before. However, if you allow yourself to focus, at some moment in the workshop, it’s likely you’ll have an “aha” moment. You may not shout “eureka!” with new ideas you’ve never considered before, but you may make a quiet discovery, glimpsing, perhaps, a new perspective on your own thinking or practices.

Three Prompts for Discovery

It would be a lot easier if we could build in discovery as a step or phase in the learning process (for the next 15 minutes, we’re all going to have an epiphany), but the reality is that there are so many variables that go into it, that it can be hard to predict or elicit. Breaking out of the self-awareness paradox isn’t so much activity — that you can put in an outline or add as a need on a learner experience map — as it is a series of prompts that we should include at key moments throughout the experience.

Here are a few of the tried-and-true prompts for nudging learners towards discovery:

  1. Leverage assessments whenever possible

I think we may be getting closer to some much-needed disruption in the realm of assessments. The scientific validity of many assessments is in question, and we’re beginning to challenge some of the underlying assumptions. Regardless, knowing we should do our best to find and use the best assessments available, it’s counter-productive to get overly cynical. In practice, assessments can be a powerful utility in showing learners another perspective on themselves. They can nudge learners to ask themselves questions that they may not have considered. They invite learners to take stock, evaluate, and analyze their behavior, which is exactly what we want.

  1. Use both individual and group reflection

It’s important to be strategic with individual and group reflection on soft skills topics. Overuse of this strategy or the wrong cadence can really turn off those learners for whom group work often feels like a waste of time. Learner reflection can feel like an interruption if isn’t facilitated well. The objective of individual and group reflection exercises should be critical thinking. That critical thinking can lead to those “aha” moments. Sharing those discoveries with others helps us to remember them and further refine our thinking. Noting them for later may give us another chance to spiral back around to the idea.

  1. Consider cognitive-task simulations

Sometimes, the principle itself may be enough to inspire the self-awareness for which we’re hoping, but learners often need to do, try, and explore in order to find the relevance or the specific application to their own context. We use simulations all of the time to practice more transactional tasks, like learning a new application or troubleshooting a process or system. Imagine what types of simulations might be useful in helping learners develop empathy for customers or resolve conflicts in a group meeting. In many situations, a role-playing strategy is insufficient because it lacks verisimilitude and focuses on the concept rather than the specific use case. While the simplicity of a role play can be illustrative, the relative complexity of a simulation can be transformative.

What Next?

So, what might you do with your new awareness of the need to inspire self-awareness in soft skills training? You might look at how you select and sequence your training. For example, a program such as implicit bias could be useful to increase self-awareness prior to a leadership program. If you’re a trainer or designer, you might take a second look at the self-awareness strategies in your program. What is working and what isn’t? Are you using assessments or simulations? As you look at the efficacy of existing programs, if you’re not getting the desired results, you might consider a consultation with an expert.

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