As a program manager and facilitator, during the many QuickLearn workshops which focus on soft skills, I have been startled by the observation that sometimes the obvious is so obvious that it is not applied.

Take for instance the workshop ‘Ask Questions And Lead’ which fully focuses on asking good questions in a good way. I always ask at the beginning what the participants know about asking questions in order to get a quick scan of their knowledge level on the topic. And mostly they know a lot: On the attitude level that being interested in people is important. On the skill level that also listening skills are important. And on the technique level they know many types of questions ranging from open questions to probing questions to embedded questions.

But when they are asked to do an exercise in having a small talk with a colleague participant they get stuck. Besides the fact that the more artificial setting of a workshop has some influence, the lack of applying in real life what they already know plays an important role as well.

One of the examples I use to illustrate this statement is a short demo conversation with one of the participants in which I ask the simple question ‘Where did you spend your last holiday?’ The answer may be ‘In Paris’. Then I ask ‘And how was it?’ And the answer may be ‘I really liked it, especially the Louvre…’ and I immediately interrupt by saying ‘Oh yes, I was there too. I also liked it very much. I was there in 2016 and besides the art inside I was also impressed by the baroque-style of the buildings, and not to forget…….’. So, what actually happens after asking only two questions, I take over the conversation by telling my own story instead of showing more interest by asking more questions. And without exception every participant observing the demo smiles or laughs in full recognition of the reality displayed by it.

That is why I always apply ‘the back-to-basics’ principle in the beginning of any soft skill workshop. Back to what the participants already know and is obvious to them, but don’t apply yet! It is nice to know about probing questions and to have some examples in mind. But the basis is to first learn to ask open questions to get information and to ask closed questions to check information. To ask first-line questions to open a topic and to ask second-line questions to elaborate on the answers. It is amazing how happy the participants are when they experience that they are becoming very good at it. And once they have that feeling, then they are ready for the less obvious and more complicated elements of asking questions J.

In my opinion relationships, privately as well as professionally, are mainly defined by the interactions between people. This underlines the importance of developing soft skills. Developing soft skills to great finesse, however, starts with mastering the basics first.

John Bax
Program Manager QuickLearn