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!”

4 replies
  1. James A. Boyd
    James A. Boyd says:

    Hi Charlie,

    You are 98% right with this one.  The missing 2% is suggesting that blame may lie with trasining organization leadership. When I was consulting to the banking and trust industry, I also fulfilled the role of relationship sales trainer.  Role-play formed a critical part of the traning and, yes, we got tons of -play was unprofessional and they did not want to participate, management often asked us to "ease off".  When we told them that role-play was critical to success – you are 1,000% right there – and it was a non-negotiable component of the training, we sometimes got fired.  In fact we got fired a lot, but my boss, the president of the company, never waivered in insisting that all of our training include role-play. 

    Our success came from making the role-play fun with interesting characters with interesting problems/needs built into the case studies that formed the basis of the role play.  We also did a faculty demonstration role-play to show the class how t should be done. Then, all role-plays were in small groups of six trainees with a faclty advisor and everyone got to play teacher, evaluator and participant.  When they got through role-play without dying, the universal comment was that it was the best part of the training.  What makes role-play even more valuable is a follow-up program of mini-role-plays, but now using real life prospect and client situations as the case study.   We found that people were then engerized to go out and build a trusting and trusted relationship armed with a practiced idea of what they were going to do.

    Make it a great day.


  2. peter vajda
    peter vajda says:

    "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."(Charlie)

    I can’t tell you how many couples I work with who are experiencing a failing relationship (yes, even at work, never mind at home). They want to experience happiness and bliss and but have never built a foundation for their relationship. They "think/thought they knew what relationships are/were all about but never engaged in learning how to be in a relationship – the good, the bad or the ugly. It’s the same for "serial" daters. They have a "cognitive" notion; it hardly ever pans out into a healthy relationship.

    "We also did a faculty demonstration role-play to show the class how it should be done." (James Boyd)

     I also can’t tell you how many coaches I know who have never done their own process or personal work so never "go there" with their clients. I’ve had many clients over the years who have been "coached" before coming to me, who continue to fail in their attempts to change and transform, and relate, because the "cognitive" approach did not support them to undo self-limiting programming, habits and patterns (approaches that did not touch on the deeper emotional issues that are the foundation of their self-limiting beliefs, premises, assumptions, etc.) 

    So, it’s Groundhog Day for these folks. Absent the "practice" of dealing with one’s fears to metabolize and digest them, and practice new ways of experencing, feeling and being, what we have are folks whose music and notes are quite discordant.

    Role-play doesn’t have to be artificial. As long as folks are being honest, sincere, allowing their vulnerability and facing their fears in a safe and trusting container, role-play can go a long way to supporting folks to "show up," be authentic and real. This is one way to build the foundation upon which truly healthy relationships are built.

    "Role-play-boring; I get it" = denial.  

  3. Barbara Garabedian
    Barbara Garabedian says:

    Spending a good portion of my career in HR heading up L&D for "smart people", I agree w/ you Charlie. They can and do grasp concepts quickly but grasping a concept quickly does not mean one can execute effectively. There is a lot of Adult Learning theory to support the formula of : present concept/try to apply it within your org. context/ obtain constructive feedback / do it again/do it again/do it again/do it again/do it again, etc.

    Delivery Skills L&D (AKA the Soft Skills Stuff) is important and can’t be relegated to a cognitive exercise just because it isn’t formulaic or quantitative. BTW, the latter being all the more reason for practice as each situation will be different.

    Participants and role playing: "smart people" dislike role plays for very plausible reasons, "they don’t want to fail & look foolish in front of their peers". Hence the reason why facilitators should be selected w/ great care to be sure they understand the audience/industry. Never would I expect a facilitator to use  a participant to role play in front of an audience…we expected everyone to be involved in the role play simultaneously so they all could focus on themselves.

    BTW, you forgot another key person in all of this – the participant’s manager! They need to explain & emphasize their expectations for application & execution, not just "knowing" the information.

    Regarding HR folks & Pushing Back:  I see several plausible reasons as to why they don’t: they need to obtain some backbone to be able to stand up to the non-experts; they don’t understand project mgmt; and/or, they really don’t understand "Learning".

    Many HR folks equate acquiescence w/ client service. Putting hole in your knees won’t do it. Savvy HR folks know if they present a solid business argument that they may not win but they certainly won’t get fired and they win some respect as a consultant versus an" order taker".

    Any proj mgr faced w/the triple constraints of project mgmt knows if pushed to save costs & time…one cuts scope, not the essence of the project!! Use technology to present information and concepts and save the face time for application!! 

    There are HR & Line folks responsible for L&D activities that don’t understand  the difference between "Learning", information and building awareness. Providing information and building awareness are steps towards learning but don’t necessarily enable execution. One needs to "try out" an approach and obtain constructive feedback on that attempt to hone the ability…the reason for internships for MDs. student teaching for teachers, etc.

    To illustrate the point to participants (especially "smart men"), provide this scenario: ask them to read Tiger Woods’ book on playing golf, then ask then to go buy his brand of clubs and then ask them to go out to Augusta and play at the Masters… just like him !!! See how many would be willing to risk their livelihood on that outcome. 

    "Book Smarts plus "Street Smarts" equals effective application & execution.

  4. Andrea Howe
    Andrea Howe says:

    Charlie, I absolutely love the scales metaphor here (or is it an analogy? I always get those two confused) and plan to steal shamelessly … with attribution of course! What a great way to shift mindsets/set expectations with a group of participants from the get-go about the format of the day and the rationale behind it. Thank you!


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