Teaching Soft Skills: How to Develop Your Team

What are soft skills and why are they important?

Few things are harder than teaching soft skills – because there are no simple curriculums or solutions. But I have a framework that helps. Before I introduce you to it, let's agree on what skills I'm talking about.

Do these skills look familiar? Are they important on your team?

  • Listening
  • Negotiation
  • Persuasion
  • Public Speaking / Storytelling
  • Written Communication

It's not a finite list. But I think we can agree that these skills are critical. Essential for success in pretty much most jobs.

And if you're running a team – whether in a product company or inside an agency – these are the skills that help you sell more products and close more deals.

That's what makes teaching soft skills so important.

But how do you do it?

Here's how most people get soft skills training wrong

Here's a quick example

Let's say you want to teach someone how to give people feedback. What have you read or learned about this? Likely someone taught you the sandwich framework, right?

You say something positive. Then the feedback. And again end with something positive.

So what happens is you give the person the framework, and they think they “get” it. But they've never been in the situation before. So they walk into the room and freeze. They stress out. Suddenly they have new problems they didn't know they'd have (the person is late, not showing up, they're heartbeat is racing, panic attack is about to occur, who knows…).

At that point, the framework is forgotten. And when the other person shows up, the whole conversation is a mess.

Here's another example

You're going to be teaching someone more about negotiation. It's a powerful soft skill to learn. So you invite the person to join you while you demonstrate your mastery of this particular skill.

They watch. Maybe they attend three different meetings.

Then you ask them to lead the next meeting and they're horrible. So bad you have to jump in.

We don't need more examples

I'm guessing these sound familiar. Here's why most people get soft skills training wrong:

  • Frameworks are introduced too early: The moment to introduce a framework isn't before people get started. It's after they've tried a few times and developed a range of experiences. That's when a framework can be helpful because it helps ground the experiences in a reality that helps them know what to do next.
  • Watching someone skilled doesn't teach anything: I'm sure if I was watching someone saw a log in half, I might count that as useful. But most of the time, if I'm watching a practitioner of a skill, they're so smooth I don't always know what I'm seeing. Or why I'm seeing it. It's as useful as putting a book on my head and hoping osmosis will help.

People don't start great, but they can become great

Before I show you my framework, I want to share a study that is now about 20 years old. It came from IBM Global Services and I've likely written about it before or shared it in a talk. They wanted to know when it was a good time to delegate.

The team studying this for IBM came back, after tons of research, with an answer. And it's not likely what you or I would have predicted. They're answer was in the form of a multiple.

A multiple?

Yes, they came back and said, you should delegate a task as long as it takes up to _____ times as long as it would take you.

Do you know what the multiple was?

I've been asking folks this question for years. Think about it.

If it takes you 1 day to do something, how many days would you let someone work on it before you took it away from them?

Most people give me an answer of 2 or 3. The study came back with the answer, 10.


That's crazy, right? Who would do that?

[Tweet “We often forget how bad we were at things that we're now good at.”]

But for the last 20 years, since I read the study, I've embraced it. It's the reason I have some gray hair. But it's been worth it.

Here are three things to note about this:

  1. We often forget how bad we were at things that we're now good at.
  2. People who start poorly, don't always stay slow. Sometimes they end up better than us.
  3. To get good at anything requires repetition.

[Tweet “To get good at anything requires repetition.”]

My four-part framework for teaching soft skills

When it comes to learning or teaching soft skills, I use this four-part framework. I don't have to write much about the fourth step in the process because I just finished telling you how important repetition is.

Chris Lema's Four Part Framework for Learning Soft Skills

Presence & Silence

The first part is not shocking, though most people start with frameworks and I think that's wrong. I start with modeling, but do it different than I referenced above. I'll invite someone to a meeting with me, but ask them to actively observe me (while staying silent).

The goal of active observation is that they know we'll be meeting afterwards to talk about things. So they come prepared with notes and questions.

Then we flip seats and I sit quietly in the background while they give a shot at something. And my job is to stay silent no matter what. If I interrupt to “save the day,” they won't see consequences or feel empowered to learn the soft skill.

The hardest part in all this is staying silent. For each of us. Because while they're sitting in a meeting, a feeling of insecurity can drive someone to blurt out something – just so they don't look dumb sitting there for the whole meeting silently.

[Tweet “The hardest part in all this is staying silent. For each of us. But it's a key part of learning and training.”]

And if you're an expert in a skill and know that things are falling apart, it's hard to stay silent. But it's critical.


Stage two often starts right after the meeting. We meet right afterwards to review and reflect. In this meeting I'm looking for what conventions and what vocabulary might have been foreign or confusing.

[Tweet “Predictions are powerful and when they're wrong, they're useful teachers.”]

I'm also looking for where someone predicted we were going to go somewhere and then we didn't. Predictions are powerful and when they're wrong, they're useful teachers.


It is only now, after we've tried things and had enough experiences to have a discussion about confusing conventions or failed predictions, that a framework is useful.

So I introduce it in step three, rather than as step one.

And it's sense making. It helps people frame and understand what they experienced and helps them acknowledge what to do next.


Lastly, when teaching soft skills, the name of the game is repetition. You have to give people a lot of at bats to get good at anything.

And if you do, they may surprise you. They may get better at stuff than you. And it's a joy when that happens.

I'm a decent negotiator. So when I hired a Development Director to work for me, I taught her what I knew about negotiating custom development from our clients. I felt pretty happy with how much I had brought in the past year. I encouraged her to shoot for the same goal.

She took each lesson, applied it, and did fine the first quarter. Then she tweaked some things to make them her own. And got better. Solid second quarter. And I stopped paying attention. But at the end of the year, her number was 4 times what I had done.

And I couldn't have been happier!

Have Questions? Let's Chat.

If you have questions about this framework, you can hit me up on Clarity (see the ad below). While I don't support comments on this blog anymore, you can also hit me up on Twitter.