So-called “soft” skills

A few months ago, I attended the teaching demonstration of a candidate interviewing for a position at my campus. The topic of her demonstration was motivational interviewing in the healthcare context. As I understand it, motivational interviewing is a technique that healthcare practitioners use with patients to inspire change in their health-related behaviors–quitting smoking, for example. The goal of this approach is to help uncover and employ the patients’ own motivations for change. Miller and Rollnick describe the different styles of “helping conversations as lying along a continuum,” from “directing” style on one end to “following” style on the other. They place “guiding” style, of which motivational interviewing is part, in the middle, describing a skillful guide as a “good listener … [who] also offers expertise where needed.” 

Motivational interviewing uses four core skills known as OARS: open questioning, affirming, reflecting, and summarizing. The candidate showed us two videos to illustrate motivational interviewing and OARS in practice. In the first video, demonstrating a non-motivational approach, the physician exhibits a rather confrontational style. In the second video, demonstrating a motivational approach, the physician’s OARS skills are readily apparent.  

I wasn’t previously acquainted with the term motivational interviewing, but its meaning and practice felt quite familiar, making me think first of the reference interview. Of course, there are obvious differences between the healthcare and library contexts, but there seem to be some notable similarities between their principles and techniques. Both, for example, are driven by careful, active listening and marked by an open attitude as well as empathy and respect for the patient/user. Effective use of these techniques–no easy task–is essential for facilitating successful communication, learning, and change. 

My thoughts went next to a podcasting project I’ve been working on with a colleague for the past year and a half or so. The gist here is that we chat with guests about their research and inquiry-based projects or professional paths, attempting to uncover the steps, skills, behaviors, and attitudes essential to the process of research and creative accomplishments. (You can find season 1 on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, and Google Podcasts.) This has been a challenging project in many ways. For one, this is totally new territory for us and the learning curve has felt steep at times. It’s also challenging in that it feels rather uncomfortable to put ourselves out there in this way (kind of like blogging, really). Listening back to the conversations we’ve had with our lovely and accomplished guests during the season 1 editing process, it was funny (read: embarrassing, torturous) to hear myself stumble or blather as I tried to ask questions or make connections, to notice how many noises I made without even realizing–an mm-hmm here, an uh-huh there–to show I’m invested and listening. But looking back on these recordings through this lens now gives me new appreciation for how truly crucial questioning and listening skills are, what an impact they make on the connection between speaker and listener in the moment and on the quality of the conversation. 

And then, a few weeks ago at the LOEX conference, I delivered a presentation that was in large part a reflection on the changes I’ve made to how I teach over the course of my career so far in order to support students’ more conceptual and strategic understanding of information literacy and deepen my own teaching practice. Reflecting on my teaching trajectory to prepare that presentation gave me a fresh perspective on some of the most transformative changes and stages along the way: applying constructivist and metacognitive practices and using active learning and formative assessment methods. Thinking about these milestones again now shows me how deeply embedded this questioning, listening, and guiding thread is in these pedagogical approaches and, therefore, in my teaching. 

I’m struck now, as I follow this thread through domains of my work, by how important these questioning, listening, and guiding techniques–skills, really–are to me in all areas of my professional, not to mention personal, practice. How foundational they are to the way I operate in the world, or at least the way I want to. It feels too self-important to call it an ethic, but this foundation of careful and active listening with an open attitude, empathy, and respect does seem rather like a way of working to aspire to, to practice. 

In thinking anew here about the value and essentialness of these skills to me, I can’t help but also think about how invisible–or perhaps overlooked, undervalued–they are. “Soft skills,” they’re sometimes called–a term used to refer to a wide range of abilities, questioning and listening as well as leadership and teamwork to public speaking and professional writing to emotional awareness and adaptability and plenty more. I have to say, I’ve long disliked the term. While perhaps not the original intention, it seems to me that the “soft” label implies that such skills can be easily achieved, as in the opposite of “hard.” Or perhaps “soft” gives the impression of being weak and, as such, less important or less desirable. I’m not alone in wanting to re-brand these essential abilities. Some recent articles (like here and here) suggest “power skills” instead, for example–a change that would more appropriately convey their significance. I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say that these skills are, in fact, my lifeblood, infusing every domain, every interaction. And maybe that’s the key to seeing “soft” from a different angle. Soft as in fleshy, meaty, meaning substantive and weighty. Soft as in flexible, meaning adaptable to any context. And soft as in without boundaries, meaning permeating and, therefore, penetrating. Powerful, indeed.