The most important ‘soft’ skill is reading people. That means assessing your first impressions of them methodically, recognising their limitations, sensing the impact you have made with your own first impression, and understanding the minute by minute changes in the other person’s interest in what you are saying and doing. You must at the same time be monitoring distractions and mood fluctuations to see how they affect the attention and confidence the other person has in you while progressively interpreting all these elements. You would be doing this anyway. To read people well you must do it proactively.
Your interpretation of these observations will enable you to assess whether you ‘like’ them and they ‘like’ you, how much you trust each other, whether they are inclined to listen to, and sensibly adopt, your advice – in fact, whether you can influence them usefully. All our lives we are teaching, training, influencing, convincing, pleading, begging, selling things and ideas – trying to control what other people do – for good or not so good reasons.
If you are the protagonist you look your best, dress smartly, smile when suitable, show interest at all times. You will use all means legally and morally at your disposal to communicate your vital message. So where, by choice, will you do that? On Zoom? I don’t think so. Zoom is a great medium for functional, transactional interchange. It is the equivalent of a photocopy with notes. Multi-people Zoom meetings lack the ‘smell’ of the discussion, the ‘breath’ of the passion, the ‘despair’ of the losing side. Almost all Zoom sessions have some difficulties.
Face to face is the best way to communicate and, within reason, the closer the better. Those who watch that master interviewer Stephen Sackur getting to the heart of someone’s beliefs, problems and successes will know that the discussion goes best when toe to toe in the studio. On Zoom it is still powerful but not quite as effective and Sackur must then work harder to expose the key messages. A punch away from the person you are talking to provides a strong incentive to handle them well enough to avoid one.
A criterion to help you decide the environment for an important discussion is how deeply you intend – or need – to go into people’s private lives. And here the dilemma is that you often don’t know in advance. An apparently casual conversation about someone’s career quite often opens up the need to examine their domestic situation, occasionally their family history and once in a while, in our experience, their relationship with God.
Most people are somewhat tense when conducting a discussion. They communicate better when they are more relaxed. Across a desk is a really bad way to hold any conversation. Over coffee or lunch is probably best for most discussions. What if you are reprimanding someone for poor performance or unacceptable behaviour? These are some of the most difficult times to have to tell people uncomfortable news. So much so that you need the best possible environment in which to do so.
Reprimanding others is occasionally necessary but the reason for having to do so is almost always as much yours as theirs. Negatives force people into defensiveness, at which point the whole issue becomes one of who to blame. That is the road to nowhere. Today’s boss has a harder job than any manager before him or her. The skill of asserting discipline while remaining within the bounds of polite behaviour and the law is fraught with difficulties. What starts on Monday as an act of generosity and empathy may be a right by Wednesday and even, in extreme cases, a court hearing by Friday.
Tough messages require gentle handling if they are to be useful. A cup of coffee, a bite to eat all make the context more agreeable, calm the nerves and allow for humour to play its invaluable part. Win-win is not always possible but lose-lose can mostly be avoided.
Lunch is most certainly a soft skill.
If you have a story about difficult conversations please tell us. You can do so at [email protected].
7 January 2024