Honing Your Soft Skills by Making Thinking Wrong a Habit

January 17, 2019 by Helen Edwards



More and more people recognize how important soft skills are to career success. The ability to effectively work with others, as well as managing the relationship you have with yourself, is crucial to how you handle pressure, manage priorities, deal with ambiguity, influence others, stay curious and be willing to learn.

Improving your soft skills is a long term process of reinforcement training, which first requires that you are aware of how your communication is affecting others’ responses and, in turn, influencing your own reaction to the situation. Once you build the skills to notice and be aware, you can start to experiment with different ways of communicating and handling challenging situations. Only then you can start to see different results.

Unfortunately, habit can be your enemy when it comes to building soft skills. And because building new habits is best done with small, uncomplicated steps that take the “right thinking” out of it, many Think Wrong drills are perfectly suited to helping lay the ground work for better soft skills.

Make use of symbols to build connections faster

Metaphors and symbols are immensely powerful. The neurobiologist, Robert Sapolksy, explains why in his book Behave, the Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst. Symbolic and metaphorical thinking “evolved so recently that our brains are, if you will, winging it and improvising on the fly when dealing with metaphor. As a result, we are pretty lousy at distinguishing between the metaphorical and the literal.” We can use this feature to create short cuts that help us understand what lies beneath someone’s outer layer.

Take, for example, kick-off meetings. It can be challenging to get a meeting going with a new group of people. Thinking Right treats introductions as a formal activity; listing departments, titles and credentials, which reinforces divisions among participants. This, in turn, sets up a dynamic where people are more concerned about figuring out status and who’s competing with whom than in getting to know one another. Thinking Wrong treats arrival and introductions as a time to establish an informal, playful, growth mindset environment which, in turn, creates a safer environment for people to contribute.

Try the drill, I’m a Tool, where people describe themselves as a tool. There are so many creative and meaningful ways to describe yourself in terms of a tool; are you a cement mixer, a vacuum cleaner, a whisk? This drill is great fun but make sure to take the time to notice people’s reactions. Are they skeptical, nervous, proud, embarrassed, full of mirth? Do they fidget, shuffle, mumble or do they lean in? This is a great way to rapidly get a picture of each other at a deeper level, which helps foster more authentic and direct communication.

Make it safe for people

We spend a big proportion of our cognitive cycles figuring out if we are in a safe environment. As Daniel Coyle explains in his book The Culture Code, building safety and a sense of belonging for everyone on the team is a fundamental skill of good leaders. In an experiment called “the bad apple” test, 40 groups were seeded with a person who was tasked with being a slacker or having a negative attitude. In the study, only one group delivered high performance on a task while all other groups delivered a performance well below what would have been expected given the skills of the individuals in each group. What happened in the high performing group? It came down to one person who constantly did small things that made people feel safe - positive comments, lean-in body language, building one idea on another so that people felt the positive momentum of ideas. This soft skill superpower - the ability to easily and authentically deliver cues that signal belonging within a group - helps people feel safe, makes it ok to be vulnerable and builds a sense of a shared purpose.

In Think Wrong, one technique offers a shortcut to developing this superpower; “Yes, and.” In drills Djibouti or The Big Yes, the practice of being forced to respond to someone’s idea by starting with “yes, and” fundamentally alters the dynamic in the group. Thinking Right - saying “no” and finding flaws in new ideas or arguing why they won’t work - might seem efficient but it changes how people in the group offer themselves, which, in turn, changes how the leader in the group assimilates the group's ideas and input. Thinking Wrong, by saying “yes,” pushes ideas in directions they might not otherwise go and increases collaboration and cooperation.

When you’re stuck in a rut with a group that can’t seem to escape the gravity of a “bad” try “yes, and-ing” them. It’s a great habit.

Understand someone’s pain. And doing something about it

Empathy is integral to any discussion about soft skills. However, empathy is often misunderstood. Empathy evolved in humans as a way of us learning from others’ mistakes. Feeling empathy for someone - feeling their pain - isn’t the same as understanding that pain nor does it guarantee taking any action to reduce that pain. As Sapolsky says in Behave, “the crucial issue is whether an empathetic state actually produces a compassionate act, to avoid the trap of empathy being an end unto itself. The gap between the state and the act can be enormous.”

There are three situations where we can’t simply rely on feeling the pain of others; where we need to develop soft skills such as the ability to bring an intentional or analytical mindset to a moment:

  • when the pain we feel in response to another’s pain is so uncomfortable that our only action is to simply avoid the pain.

  • when the pain is not overt and requires more cognitive engagement to figure out what’s going on - for example when pain is emotional rather than physical.

  • when the situation includes implicit in-group bias - for example, a wealthy executive trying to understand the life of a homeless addict.

Sapolsky highlights that in these situations we need to “suppress the automatic and implicit urge to be indifferent and do the creative, motivated work of finding emotional commonalities.”

There are many drills that prompt us to work beyond the intuitive, easy emotional reactions and dig deeper into the true nature of an empathic solution. Love and LoatheShow Up and Matters Most may well be top of mind, as well as Pain Tree, which is designed to discover underlying problems and the root cause of the pain someone is experiencing.

5 Whys is an easy tool to foster the habit of bringing an intentional or analytical mindset to an empathy-centric problem. Right Thinking often involves a set answer or framework that can effectively stop us developing true perspective-taking skills. 5 Whys is a simple way of escaping narrow and shallow definitions and explore more paths to what matters to you, your organization, and those who benefit directly and indirectly from what you do—and how to do it. It’s also a drill that can be done anywhere, anytime and on the smallest of problems.

Think Wrong drills are designed to bust through many biases that keep us stuck in the status quo. Soft skill development is an important part of successfully identifying the bold path and having the persistence, resilience and action-orientation to take it on. Small changes in habit help to alter perspective and provide very different feedback, especially in difficult situations. Try using some of these drill techniques in micro-moments in an every day situations; over time, small nudges lead to big changes.