One of the most misused terms in organisations when referring to the development of people is “soft skills”. We have often wondered what people assume when they use this term. Do they assume ‘soft skills’ are:

  • Easy – if so, why do we consistently hear and read about poor communication skills in organisations?

  • Not important – why then do Learning and Development activities?

  • Associated with gender – is it about being androgynous?

  • Touchy-feely – this cannot be a business focus and so is a negative thing?

  • The opposite of ‘hard skills’ and ‘hard skills’ get the real business outcomes that we’re after?

  • Something else entirely?

 If we Google ‘soft skills’ and ‘hard skills’ we see definitions like this:

  1. Soft Skills – personal attributes that enable someone to interact effectively and harmoniously with other people e.g. people, teamwork, leadership and communication skills

  2. Hard Skills – Occupational knowledge and skills that are specific, teachable and measurable, e.g. reading, writing, maths, software use, engineering, & finance.

We believe these so called soft skills are in fact really hard and are also the skills that are fundamental in having functional, effective dialogues with other adults in our organisational life. Yet we observe that, in the main this does not occur.
Why is this the case? We find it really strange. Organisations are full of intelligent people. Women and men who are skilled in many facets of life. Many of these professional and tradespeople do really hard things like designing complex infrastructure, performing difficult surgery, teaching young people, fixing toilets, connecting electricity – the list goes on. Why then do these really skilled people, doing difficult things in all these fields of endeavour, so often lack the capability to have a quality dialogues with others in their organisation that result in better outcomes more often for themselves, others and the organisation?
When it comes to the way dialogues happen, there’s a continuum that has autocratic (combative) behaviour at one end which is typified by telling, yelling and can extend to bullying, while the other end has accommodating behaviour typified by trying to please everyone and being seen as a pushover. It’s the autocrat who gets away with the most dysfunctional behaviour as they rarely get called out by others – we often fear the consequences. This of course gives permission for the autocrats to continue in unacceptable ways and potentially create a combative and damaging culture for the organisation.

In order to circumvent this type of behaviour organisations often establish Values and associated behaviours that give clarity to what is acceptable and unacceptable. Despite this positive intention we often observe a lack of behavioural skill development to help people live the Values daily. We also see, all too often, the framed Values looking pretty on the wall and going missing in action when it comes to behaviour, policies and systems.

In recent times, so called ‘soft skills’ have had a bit of a make-over to probably make them sound harder and tougher. You’ll now see them called fierce conversations, difficult conversations, courageous conversations, non-violent conversations - all of which can have people assuming these conversations are stressful, conflictual and a cause for concern. We’d like to shift the mindset here to conversations that are just effective adult dialogues that enhance the relationship between one person and another, one group and another. The ‘hard’ thing about these skills is that, just like the engineer, the doctor, the teacher, the plumber and the electrician referred to above, these skills need to be learnt and practiced like any other skills if we want the same kind of ‘technical’ result i.e., collaborative dialogues that deliver effective outcomes for both individuals and groups.

Over our last few blogs we have spoken of the Integral Framework and the quadrants of Culture, Perspective and more recently Systems. In this piece we are focussing on the Capability quadrant and in an integral world, individual effectiveness, i.e., what they do and what they say, is influenced by the other quadrants


Dialogue skills are often ineffectual because people talk too much, don’t listen, talk over others and give commentary that is negative and blaming rather than solution centred. We know through neuroscience that these types of dialogues cause those of us on the receiving end to feel under attack where the only responses available to us are to fight (talk back negatively/aggressively), flee (turn away/avoid) or freeze (say nothing like a bunny in the headlights). This has the deliverer and the receiver either going nowhere or escalating into further dysfunction. Clearly skills need to be developed in order to enhance both the dialogue and the quality of outcomes.

A great example of the skills that can be developed is through the work of Nancy Kline and the Thinking Environment. The Thinking Environment methodology enables people to develop behavioural capability that allows you and your team to get the best thinking from each person, and therefore, the best results. Your people will be energised and engaged, face and solve problems deftly, ask the hard questions, keep the big picture well-tuned while completing projects, work and communicate collaboratively with other colleagues, and develop their own talents and leadership.
So in order to learn more about the Thinking Environment and other behavioural skills contact us at  or call on 1300 133 550