Over at the Geek Manager site, Meri Williams recently blogged about a phenomenon she sees play out among her teams. A technically brilliant person "slowly becomes incredibly frustrated that they don’t have the impact they want to have." The person knows he needs "soft skills" but many then fell prey to belief in what Williams calls the Soft Skills Fairy.
"The Soft Skills Fairy has a wand, and if you were touched with it at birth then you have soft skills. If you weren’t you don’t and can never develop them," she writes.
This is obviously ridiculous. Just as people can learn to code, write, or speak French, people can learn to work with other people, too. Successful people—even those not naturally inclined this way—learn to do just that.
But this isn’t a modern observation. Nearly 80 years ago, Dale Carnegie’s famous book, How to Win Friends and Influence People, addressed hard-working sorts who felt they couldn’t get ahead because of a lack of people skills. I re-read the book recently, and was reminded of a few soft skills that will make a huge difference in anyone’s life.
I’m an introvert, but fortunately, I’m also a journalist. I’ve learned that it’s easy to have a conversation if I just ask people about their lives and interests. In Carnegie’s book, he has a list of "6 Ways to Make People Like You." Two of them? "Become genuinely interested in other people," and "Be a good listener." Encourage others to talk about themselves. Since most people like to recount their stories and observations, your interest in listening makes you a person people enjoy being around.
While misery may love company, long term it’s not the company you want to be keep. The simplest of Carnegie’s advice was to smile. Most people prefer to work with people who aren’t always lamenting how the world has done them wrong.
To quote Carnegie, "Show respect for the other person’s opinions. Never say ‘You’re wrong.’" This is the most difficult soft skill for many of us to pick up. We all have an inner know-it-all who feels like correcting trivial things: Lance Armstrong won seven consecutive Tour-de-France competitions before being stripped of his titles, not eight! But unless you’re working as a fact-checker, it probably doesn’t matter, and it’s unlikely that someone will say "You know that woman who corrected everything I said? I really want to work with her!" This goes for bigger matters too. If an employee does something wrong, don’t harp on it. Tell her how to do it right. "Praise every improvement," Carnegie noted. Then people keep wanting to improve.
Carnegie told people to "appeal to the nobler motives" and it’s not a bad idea. You can assume in your interactions with people that they’re lazy, incompetent, or out to get you, but if you’re choosing to work with someone, acting disdainful about the whole thing isn’t going to make it easier. Up until the point a relationship cannot be sustained, assuming that you are both trying to solve a problem together, and that the other person wants to help solve the problem will often "arouse in the other person an eager want"—as Carnegie put it—to do just that.