Importance of “Soft Skills” in Work and Life

Many people have felt the need to work overseas. For some it is because of missionary ministry. Others it may be due to immigration, or needing to send money home as an overseas foreign worker (OFW). But what qualities are likely to make one more effective working in a cross-cultural work setting?

Consider the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) that did a study as to who is most effective in serving overseas (cross-culturally). The three top things listed in Duane Elmer’s book, CROSS-CULTURAL SERVANTHOOD: SERVING THE WORLD IN CHRISTLIKE HUMILITY (IVP Books, 2006), pages 96-97.

  1. “… Ability to initiate and sustain interpersonal relationships with the local people.”
  2. “… A strong sense of self-identity, which allowed people to be real with each other.”
  3. “… Positive, realistic predeparture expectations.”

If one looks at these three— the first two are very much tied to Pastoral Care and Counseling. Even the third one could be seen as tied to PC&C when one realizes that it is, in part, based on a grounded understanding of self within the context of one’s limitedness.

Pastoral Care and Counseling (especially in the context of the group process in Clinical Pastoral Education) is focused on developing healthy relationships (with others, with God, and with self).

While there are those who see the goals of PC&C as “soft” or about being “feel good.” But in truth, this is not true. When it came to work for overseas workers, these ‘soft skills’ were more critical to job success than ‘technical skills’— the skills that would be classically put on a resume to show that one can ‘do the job.’ In fact, having these technical skills are considered important— but only 4th on the list.

Why would technical skills be fourth after the other three? Frankly, technical skills are actually the easiest things to train. On the job, the advice “fake it until you make it” can often work when it comes to these job description skills. However, when it comes to relationship skills and sense of self, attempts to “fake it” is unlikely if these skills and self-understanding are in one’s “blind spots.” You can’t fix what you don’t know is broken. And if one knows the problems and chooses to put up a false-front rather than dealing with these issues, this false-front is tiring and often breaks down over time.

Although the CIDA report focuses on overseas work, there seems little reason to think that working within one’s own culture. Patrick Lencione has noted in “The Ideal Team Player” has noted that a member in a working group has three major qualities. One of these is “Great Social Skills.” This is a “soft skill” and the other two are also not hard or technical skills— Humility and Ambition. <Note: Lencione uses the terms “Smart,” “Humble,” and “Hungry” for these qualities.> It is relatively easy to teach a teammember the “hard” skills of a job, but very difficult to teach “soft” skills. This sounds backwards— but the fact that training programs focus on hard or technical skills for jobs not on the other (despite the fact that they are greater indicators of success) should make one suspect which one is easier.

Duane Elmer’s book speaks of the process of learning. That book speaks of three areas of learning within the context of gaining an understanding of a different culture. These are (1) Learning About, (2) Learning From, and (3) Learning With. While this relates to acculturation, one can also look at that in terms of relationship skills and self-understanding. One can learn these by reading up in these topics, and taking evaluative tests and such. However, one must also listen to what others tell us— discovering blind spots. And one learns best interactively— learning in a small, ‘safe’ group.

This is why CPE and other forms of growth groups can be a big help in many areas of life.