Let’s Hear It For “Soft Skills”: Communication & Collaboration

Last Friday (March 12), at Cengage Learning‘s 2010 “Course Technology Conference,” an annual gathering of college IT teachers, I talked about the importance of  connection, engagement, communication, and relationship development in the classroom–skills that educators often consider “soft.”   The points I made are relevant to any classroom, workplace, institution, or organization.

Pay attention to the small moments. Life is an ongoing series of casual, everyday interactions that add up.   You don’t hear the sound of strings swelling in the background when something important is about to happen.  So if you don’t pay attention, you might miss moments that matter.  A brief talk in the hallway, an email from a former colleague, a Facebook response to a comment, a few minutes spent helping someone else–each conversation results in a bit of information, insight, clarity, a feeling of being connected, or a good laugh.  And the more you notice them, the more you make them happen.

Celebrate diversity. An odd by-product of political correctness is that although it supposedly eradicates offensive language related to gender, race, religion, sexuality, and the like, it can also limit the celebration of differences.  A community collage classroom, for example, is a rich font of diversity, and everyone–the taxi cab driver, the single mother, the house painter–brings something different to the table–and to each other’s lives.  Different perspectives enrich us.  That’s why the Occupation Test, has a range of jobs, up and down the socio-economic ladder.  As sociologist Bonnie Erickson, having a diverse social convoy is “like enrolling in a liberal arts college and getting a degree in a little of almost everything.”

Use relationships, not rewards, to motivate. Actually, relationships are the best reward. In the classroom, in the workplace, at home, or any setting where people are expected to cooperate and contribute, the goal is to join with instead of laud over, to position yourself at the center, rather than rule from on high.  Read this post by Howard Rheingold in which he talks about dealing with students’ divided attention in the classroom by heightening their awareness and asking them to participate with him.  Smart corporate managers take a similar approach with their workers.  For that matter, so do smart parents!  A relationally-engaged person is a partner and an ally.   (I talked about the dangers of not engaging in How GM Lost Touch With Its CS.)

Today, the ability to communicate, share, and be open to others’ ideas are essential.  To think of these as “soft skills” is dismissive.   Every decision we make, every piece of information we acquire, every insight, every project that needs completion involves interactions with others–face-to-face and/or online.  We are all in it together.

Important Note:  Howard Rheingold has developed the  Social Media Classroom and Collaboratory,  a free online resource for students and teachers.  Arguably, we all need to explore what he considers the five key “Internet literacies”: attention, participation, collaboration, network awareness, and crap detection!  It’s worth a look.

Do You Have Culture Smarts

Do you ever wonder why some people get all the breaks–and get ahead–with seeming ease? What’s their secret? It may be that they’re smart, or that they simply went to the “right” schools.  But research indicates that it’s not always privilege that opens doors. It’s also a matter of “culture smarts.”

People with culture smarts can have a lively conversation with anyone–about restaurants, pop music, art, fashion, business, tech trends, the news of the day. They’re lifelong learners who keep gathering a little information about a lot of things that you don’t necessarily learn from school. You learn it from people.

To find out if you have culture smarts, ask yourself, how varied is my social convoy?  Do you I know people up and down the  occupation ladder? To find out, take the Occupation Test.   You’ll see that in national samples, the highest scorers know people in 19 of the 22 occupations listed.  But knowing people in more than 19 occupations certainly isn’t out of the question. In fact, one of the women I interviewed, a New York City bus driver who has been at the wheel for nearly thirty years, know people in all 22!  Exceedingly culture smart, she managed to work her way up the ladder of success despite her humble beginnings, mostly because she can “mix it up” with her fellow drivers and a multi-hued array of passengers.)   Indeed, if having a diverse convoy is like getting a degree in “a little of almost everything,” as sociologist Bonnie Erickson puts it, then consequential strangers–people outside our intimate circles–are our best teachers.

The Occupation Test

Print this list of occupations or copy them onto a sheet of paper.  Put a check mark next to each profession in which you know someone well enough to talk to, even if you are not close to him or her. Indicate whether that person is a relative (R), friend (F), or consequential stranger (CS). Then scroll down to see what it all means and how your answers compare to national samples.
administrative assistant 
baby sitter
computer programmer
factory operator
middle school teacher 
personnel manager 
police officer 
production manager 
security guard 
taxi driver


What It All Means

The above list was used in a survey of 3,000 employed or previously employed adults, aged 21 to 64, conducted by sociologist Nan Lin who devised the method (and graciously allowed it to be reprinted in the book). Theoretically, the more people you know up and down the occupational ladder, the greater your ability to access information and resources.

Best-known: Nurse–nearly 70% of the respondents knew at least one.

Somewhat well-known: 45% or more respondents listed a hairdresser, lawyer, police officer, computer programmer, or middle school teacher.

Not very well-known: Fewer than 20% knew a taxi driver, CEO, production manager, or a congressperson.

Least known: Hotel bell boy (2.7%)

How diverse is your social convoy?

On the low side (meaning you probably don’t have a very diverse social convoy): Knowing people in five or fewer occupations. Slightly more than 2% of those surveyed didn’t know people in any of the occupations.

Average: Knowing people in six or seven occupations.

Above average:  Around a third knew people in eight or more occupations. No one knew people in all 22 jobs–19 was the upper limit.

What About Your Consequential Strangers?

Sorting your contacts into columns shows how you know those people. Adapting Lin’s method in this way, sociologist Bonnie Erickson found that weaker ties–consequential strangers–”give substantially greater access” to a variety of occupations and therefore to people in different economic classes. In a study of the security industry (using a different and slightly short list), people had relatives in “only about two” occupations, friends in twice to three times as many job categories as relatives, and weak ties in twice as many classes as friends. You’ll probably find that your list is heavy on consequential strangers, too.