Acquiring Soft Skills: You Gotta Practice the Scales

You’ve heard this one.

The New York tourist asks the cab driver, “How do I get to Carnegie Hall?”

“Practice, practice, practice,” comes the answer.

The joke is well known—but sometimes we forget how broadly it applies.

Students of classical and jazz piano and guitar often don’t like doing the scales; but most do them nonetheless. I remember learning to play all seven modes (Dorian, Phyrigian, Lydian, etc.) starting from all four fingers from the same starting fret; then moving up a fret and starting over again.

My guitar teacher told me that the next step was to do the same cycle for minor, major seventh, dominant seventh, diminished and augmented scales. “This is the point,” he somberly told me, “at which all the jazz greats picked up heroin.”

Suppose a music student tells the music teacher, “Scales are boring; I get the concept, that’s all I need. Doing scales just cramps my style and inhibits my improvisational skills.” What does the teacher say?

They typically smile and say, “Yes, the scales are boring—but you’ve gotta do them anyway. Do you know how to get to Carnegie Hall?” Etc. etc.

But what about soft skills training? Suppose a corporate training student tells the trainer, “This role-play stuff is boring. I get it, OK? It’s simple. I don’t need to do repetitive drills—it just makes me sound phony.”

What does the trainer say? What does the trainer’s boss say? What do the training department’s clients say?

We Do Muscle Memory Exercises in Music: Why Not in Soft Skills Training?

It’s my experience that, sadly, corporate soft-skills trainers’ responses are not the same as those of music teachers. Faced with resistance, the trainers are more likely to say, “Well, OK, if you say so.”

In fairness to the trainers, it’s not usually their fault. And I don’t think it’s the fault of the client organizations either. I think the blame for it lies with training organization leadership itself—partly for not pushing back, and partly for buying the clients’ rationalizations that somehow you can cognitively understand your way into learning soft skills.

The truth is, there is no substitute for realistic “muscle memory” activity when it comes to learning soft skills. You simply can’t “think your way into” skills like active listening, much less empathetic listening. You can’t just memorize a set of canned “answers” to a buyer’s “objections.” You can’t just write sentences ahead of time and think you have given acceptable feedback. (See the recent movie Up in the Air for an amusing example of cognitive vs. muscle-memory learning).

The equivalent of scales in soft-skills training comes in several forms—role-plays, video replays, case discussions. For my money, nothing beats a “fish-bowl” role-play; two volunteers role-play a case in front of a room. When something happens—and it always does—everyone sees it, and knows it. There is no escaping the real-ness of what just transpired.

If trainers know this is true, why then don’t they insist on it just as strongly as music teachers do? In part, of course, it’s because music teachers are typically older than their pupils; whereas trainers are often junior to, and subordinate to, the line people in their sessions.

One trainer told me of being politely informed by an AmLaw 20 law firm that there would be no role-plays in the upcoming session. “Just discuss the technique,” the partner client said, “our people are smart enough to pick it up quickly—no need to waste time on faux drama.”

The Real Reason for Resisting Soft Skills Drills

As is often the case with negative behavior, fear is at the root. No one, me included, enjoys doing role-plays. I also don’t like the taste of some medicine, but if I’m sick, I will over-rule my taste buds.

In other words, participants just don’t want to do it. Of course, they don’t say that. They say it’s boring, they don’t need it, comprehension is enough, and so on. But it’s the HR folks who let them get away with it.

I find each of the major staff functions has a generic effectiveness issue. For IT staff, it’s speaking in jargon and over-promising. For legal staff, it’s an inability to balance risk-minimization with general management perspective.

And for HR staff—in my experience—the weakness is a desire to be accepted at the Big Table. Combined with the fact that HR people have no secret vocabulary, this means that clients will abuse them. They are too needy, and have no ritualistic skills to protect them from bullies.

And so the students resist doing what the HR people know perfectly well they should do—and the HR people don’t push back.

This is of course my pet theory, though it is based on my experience. What’s yours?

And if you’re an HR person who’s been annoyed by my use of “training” in this blog, let me suggest this: you’re not going to be called “learning and development” by the client people until you start asserting what you know to be right. Go on, stick it to ‘em. Don’t ask for respect until you’ve earned it.

If your students as you how you get to corporate Carnegie Hall, tell ‘em, “Role play, dammit!”

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