If Communication is a “Soft Skill,” Then Why Is It So Hard?

Calling communication a “soft skill” implies that it’s easier, less technical, and of reduced value.

Recently the phrase “soft skills” created a heated debate among the members of the PCS AdCom.  The question was, should communication be referred to as one of the “soft skills,” or should some other phrase be used instead?  And if so, what should that phrase be?

Let me start by saying that in my academic context, I am always fighting against the phrase, and I take every opportunity to replace “soft skill” with “professional skill” as the appropriate label for communication.  The use of “soft skills” is long-standing, but by now the engineering, math, and science faculty I work with have learned that calling communication a “soft skill” will bring down vocal corrections from every member of the English faculty.  For example, during recent interviews for a high-level administration position, the prospective candidate referred to communication as a “soft skill” during his public presentation to the campus.  Immediately from the faculty gathered came the correction:  communication is a “professional skill,” they intoned.  Their response made my heart glad!

Why does the phrase “soft skills” raise such passions?  Probably because of the unspoken but implied implications of “soft.”  For many of us who are technical communicators, “soft” belies the difficulty of what we do.  And any working engineer who has prepared a client presentation, a design report, or a regulatory document–any kind of communication piece at all, really–would probably agree that communication is simultaneously important and challenging.  “Soft” also suggests non-technical, since the “hard” skills are those technical skills that are the engineer’s bread and butter.  Finally, puppies and kittens are soft, pillows are soft, clouds are soft, ice cream can be soft.  Communication isn’t like that, is it?

This is a gratuitous picture of my new puppy Lucy!

Comments

  1. I’m not sure when/where/why communication in the workplace started being referred to as “soft,” but it encourages perceptions I don’t like: (a) communication skill is lagniappe (a little something extra) and (b) communication, as a topic or discipline, is so messy it can’t be explained.

    BTW: I’m glad Lucy is soft. She looks adorable as well!

    • i think it should be “Life Skills”. As its use is not restricted to profession only. it teaches us to which situation how to react and what to say. A person who own it can command not only personal but also professional life.

  2. dale goldschlag says:

    I would of always believed “soft skills” are something completely different. a good communicator needs tremendous talent to be able to hear people, engage in an effective way, and tailor their response to the proper person or audiences understanding and needs.

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