By Robin Miller

Part 1: Tactics: The More the Better

Organizations want to measure communication abilities and evaluate soft skills outcomes – because if you can’t measure it – it doesn’t exist.  Gauging progress in the art of communication can be challenging and elusive. Data is assumed to be essential to track progress.  Subjective feedback and accountability are traditionally used to track the development of soft skills.  While they do work, subjective feedback can, at the simplest level, be ineffective and at the worst cause damage to people and relationships. Using a grid that identifies the vast array of tactics and tools available can enhance tracking. It will strengthen the usefulness of feedback, as it helps deepen understanding of what success looks like.

We need to distinguish between successful use of soft skills and successful completion of a goal or meeting an objective.  Sometimes we have one without the other. We can have a successful outcome of a meeting and our soft skill use was not excellent. Or we can have a less than successful outcome and excellent use of soft skills.  How can we separate use of soft skills from success of the objective being met? Can we measure soft skill use independently of a goal being met?

Individually taking ownership and responsibility for improvement of our communication style and progress is key, but others are always going to be asked to evaluate our communication skills by our perceived success/failure. By creating a culture where we ask for feedback and engage a person to be our accountability partner, we open up a dialogue within the workplace for soft skills progress to be made and tracked, independent of the success or failure of the project.

So what are we measuring? Successful use of the soft skills? But what is that in reference to? If it’s not directly connected to the success of a project then we measure soft skills on their own merit.  But what is that in reference to?  To ourselves? To successful communication even if not a successful ending to a project?  Separating out those particulars is difficult

First, let’s separate out the variety of soft skills by exploring the theatre technique of tactic brain dumping of all the possibilities.

Objective/Tactic/Obstacle – Theatre Tools

The master communicator notes the objective and creates an extensive list of tactics ready to respond to anticipated obstacles.

Actors use a grid for making sure their characters have direction and aren’t just wandering aimlessly.  First, the objective is identified, second, the obstacles and then they equip themselves with all sorts of tools and techniques to get what they want. In business, this same grid can give a structure to soft skill tracking by specifying the variety of tactics and noticing if they are working. Too often in business, the objective is identified and then one, maybe two tactics are chosen. For instance, we identify the need for a new idea and we choose only one brainstorming activity.  This might work, however, our chances are increased if we take into consideration how our information is going to land on our client or team and create a list of possible tactics.

The variety of detail established in the grid enables a specificity in feedback that wards against over-general critiques. Over-general feedback, which usually feels innocuous or even safe to the giver can be sabotaging and do more damage than good.   We have witnessed many folks trapped in and replaying old subjective and misguided feedback that hinders them from moving forward.

First: Choose Clear Objectives

Objective example: Get this contract signed.

Relationships and situations are energized when we focus on objectives.  In theatre, actors are analyzing their character’s objective in relation to the others in the play – that is what the whole drama is about.  They are asking what do I want, need or must have from another character?  Without an objective, there is no drive, no direction. In business, when we lack an objective, we enter situations with no clear directive or direction. To avoid this, before meetings, pitches, or presentations, we can ask: what do I want or need from the other person?  What do they want or need from me?  Wandering aimlessly without an objective sucks the life out of plays and movies, as well as your meetings and presentations.

Although this seems basic or easy enough, often an objective has neither been consciously chosen nor directly agreed upon. When this happens, we lack focus and waste time and money.  It’s important before a meeting, to know where are you going and what you want as the outcome.

Second: Acknowledge that Obstacles Abound

Objective example: Get this contract signed.

Obstacles examples: Fear, Money, Obstinate, Don’t acknowledge need, Time, etc.

Things get in our way! Obstacles can be people, things, situations or even ourselves. An obstacle can slow down the progress of a project or create a larger scope of work.  A difficult personality could also become an obstacle in moving things or relationships forward.  In this case, we need to step back and ask ourselves, “What is the obstacle presented by this person or situation that keeps us from obtaining our objective?” This creates clarity and allows a new course of direction to be taken. Overcoming obstacles requires a diverse set of tactics and the use of creative flexibility.

Third: Identify and Collect a Variety of Tactics – the Domain of the Soft Skill Master

Objective example: Get this contract signed.

Obstacles examples: Fear, Money, Obstinate, Don’t acknowledge need, Time, etc.

Tactics examples: Point out benefits, reinforce track record, connect, assure, be blunt, soften, challenge, avoid fallout if not, subjugate, dominate, cajole….

Now we need techniques to move through the obstacles and obtain our objective. Tactics are the various ways we get what we need from another character.  In business, we need to ask: how am I going to get what I need in this meeting or situation?  Who are the other characters? How do they prefer to communicate? Do I call? Text? Email? Direct language or indirect? What is my style? What is theirs? These are enhanced by or involve the soft skill tools (tactics) that we have at our disposal.  Am I remaining open? What’s my voice portraying? What am I saying with my message? How is this landing on my client or teammates?

Final: Measure for Measure

Data is needed.  Having only one main objective per meeting is necessary.  Then note the obstacles – preparing for these can create clear focus and flexibility prior to any meeting.  Then fill in the tactics. Have a column, a long column – it needs to be chock full of options because when you are measuring soft skill abilities, you are looking at all the tactics that can be accessed. Being able to maneuver with flexibility and creativity as you encounter each obstacle is what we will measure. In theatre, we enjoy watching the characters’ resourcefulness. In business, we relax when we recognize we are in the care of a master communicator who is flexible, resilient and responsive.

Accountability is key. Self-monitoring is essential. Success is in the specificity.
1. Objective example: Get this contract signed.
Objective is established.
2. Obstacles examples: Fear, Money, Obstinate, Can’t admit need, Time, etc.
Obstacles are noted.
3. Tactics examples: Point out benefits, reinforce track record, connect, assure, be blunt, soften, challenge,   avoid fallout if not, subjugate, dominate, cajole….
Tactics possibilities are listed and plentiful.
4. Measuring the successful specific use, misuse or miss of use of tactics by the individual.

 So now we need to measure this very subjective use of tactics.  By measuring soft skills we can see progress in individuals and their interactions, as well as the impact on the overall outcomes of a project. Through this process, soft skills are directly connected to the hard skills.  The speed at which we are able to resolve issues with individuals and move projects forward will be directly connected to us practicing our soft skills.  Ultimately, each person is responsible for creating their personal communication goals and choosing accountability partners.  But as long as we have managers critiquing direct reports’ soft skills we have to go for specificity and diversity.

Part II – Coming in June: Can’t Measure, It Doesn’t Exist.