The need to foster soft skills

The need to foster soft skills

Emotional intelligence is as important as scholastic prowess in determining a student's success in life, writes Aruna Sankaranarayanan

The need to foster soft skills

Mayur consistently topped his class in Maths and Science. In Class 12, there was no doubt that he would walk into an engineering college of his choice. And sure enough, Mayur was admitted into a premium college, where he continued to win many academic accolades.

Given his stellar record, he got placed in a reputed IT firm. But five years down the road, Mayur was dismayed that many of his friends, who didn’t shine as much academically, had overtaken him on the corporate ladder. In addition, he was miffed that he got rejected by prestigious MBA schools after the interview rounds.

What Mayur never learnt is that scholastic prowess can only take one so far. In order to succeed in life, people also need soft skills, which involve a person’s socio-emotional and communication skills. Soft skills entail getting along with other people and effectively managing your own feelings and behaviour.

The term ‘emotional intelligence’ was popularised by psychologist Daniel Goleman in his bestselling book Emotional Intelligence, in which he argues that non-cognitive skills can be as important as intelligence quotient (IQ) in determining a person’s success in the workplace.

Decoding EQ

Daniel defines emotional intelligence or emotional quotient (EQ) as the “capacity for recognising our own feelings and those of others, for motivating ourselves and for managing emotions well in ourselves and in our relationships.” Further, there are five domains or pathways of EQ.

The first, self-awareness, involves being aware of our own feelings and thoughts at any given moment. While this may not seem like a difficult task, most of us get through our days without necessarily reflecting on our thoughts and emotions. Taking a step back and viewing ourselves inside-out is the first step towards self-awareness.

The next pathway entails managing or regulating our emotions. For example, during a difficult conversation with a colleague, our anger may bubble up within us. Instead of simply reacting to our anger, we need to know how to respond in a measured way so that we may convey our disapproval without getting carried away by our emotions.

The third domain involves motivating ourselves to realise our goals. We may rely on a combination of extrinsic and intrinsic factors to persist on tasks. Another important aspect of EQ involves being able to empathise with others. This involves being able to see a situation from the point of view of another person. Finally, we also need to relate and communicate well with others. Being able to converse with others, negotiate with them, handle criticism and build friendships over time are essential to thriving in the workplace.

Ironically, in today’s hyper-connected world, where most of our ‘contacts’ are just a click away, more people have blunted emotional quotients. According to MIT sociologist Sherry Turkle, youngsters especially are increasingly substituting online exchanges for face-to-face conversations. And, this, she claims in her book, Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age, has repercussions that most of us are not really aware of. In fact, according to Sherry, “Face-to-face conversation is the most human- and humanising- thing we do.”

Because we have fewer in person exchanges nowadays, many youngsters are not developing the skills of empathy, which are typically learned by interacting and seeing others. For example, when a child calls another kid ‘ugly,’ he receives immediate feedback from the other child, when interacting in person. Even if the other kid does not give a verbal retort, his facial expression and body language convey that he was hurt. Likewise, only when children are in the company of others, can they see empathy being modelled for them.

For instance, when Suhas falls down, Rubina’s mother helps him to his feet and asks, “Are you okay, Suhas?” in a tone that conveys concern. By repeatedly witnessing such incidents, Rubina learns that a soft, gentle tone signals caring.Unlike face-to-face interactions, online exchanges are devoid of these emotional markers. Emoticons that pepper emails and SMSes are a poor substitute for tone of voice, body language and facial expressions.

Often, these non-verbal cues are more powerful and accurate than words in conveying a person’s intent. Just as toddlers learn language by engaging with others, children also learn to decode non-verbal cues by interacting with people. However, as we spend more time communicating through our devices, we have fewer opportunities to learn from live exchanges.

Work in progress

But all is not lost. “The good news about emotional intelligence,” as Daniel himself puts it in his book, Working with Emotional Intelligence, “it can improve throughout life.” In fact, the maturity and wisdom that accrue with age are testimony to our growing EQs. But is it possible for an individual or an organisation to improve the emotional competencies of its staff through training and practice?

Unlike cognitive skills and technical knowledge, which can be taught, emotional skills have to be practiced over an extended period of time before they become a part of our repertoire. For an individual, activities like exercising, engaging in a hobby and meditation can serve as stress-relievers.

In order to further hone your emotional skills, you need to talk to your friends, colleagues and supervisors to find out what aspects you need to work on. You could possibly ask them for specific tips on what you could have done differently in certain situations for you to get a better gauge on your vulnerable points. Then you may make an effort to improve in those domains, and get feedback on a regular basis to assess your progress.

While organisations can institute training programmes to benefit all employees, Daniel himself cautions that many programmes are not well-designed or implemented and as a result, “have disappointingly little impact on people’s effectiveness back on the job.” However, if programmes adopt certain guidelines they can be truly constructive. For example, training programmes should be tailored to the specific needs that each job demands.

Daniel dissuades companies from training people across all skill areas. Further, programmes may asses individuals’ emotional profiles and give feedback sensitively. Trainers need to understand that people differ in their readiness levels, and motivate them accordingly. It is also essential that people have clearly defined and realistic goals to meet.

When people slip up, it should be treated as a learning opportunity on how to approach similar situations in the future. Thus, one-time seminars or workshops are unlikely to make a dent in people’s emotional skills. Ongoing programmes where employees receive regular feedback and can make necessary changes are more effectual.

Finally, we have to remember that learning any skill takes practice, patience and perseverance. As we work on nurturing our emotional selves, we may acknowledge our shared humaneness, so that we may be more forgiving towards others and ourselves too.

(The author is director, PRAYATNA, Bengaluru)

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