Language Matters!

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It’s in the SAUCE has several meanings, as some of you know from reading my other posts. One meaning is the importance of effective communication.  One application of this is the importance of choosing a direct and/or indirect communication style, determined by several variables.  Given its importance, the subject of communication is one we will come back to time and again.  Communication is how we get along well with others, or not.  The focus of this post on communication is the language we use, and how words matter.

A few examples.  When you hear the word “soft,” what images come to mind?  What about the word “hard?”  What about the word “human?”  Which of these words are normally used in a more positive manner?  Which have the appropriate amount of energy and action attached to their meaning?

In our society, in general, is “soft” thought of as confident, powerful, and competent?  Probably not.  Soft is a word that is more passive than active, creating an image of low energy, weakness and meekness.

How about the word, “hard?”  To many people “hard” sounds negative, even when compared to “soft.”  Although “hard” has more energy and action associated with it, that energy and action are often thought of as more negative than positive.  Words such as “hardnosed,” “hard headed” and “hard hearted” come to mind, interestingly enough all body parts, and all implying unbending.  The person thought of as “hard” is likely an aggressive personality.  On the other hand, the word “hard” may also bring to mind positive thoughts or traits, such as “hard worker.”

What about the word, “human?” When I asked my husband this question, he replied, “family.”  Another person replied, “relationships.”  These are more positive than negative answers, although there are certainly dysfunctional families and negative relationships!  Most people, I believe, do hear the word “human” as humanistic and positive, and with the appropriate amount of energy and action on the part of all individuals involved, relationships can be positive and healthy.

So, what do these distinctions relate to, other than as a “word smithing” exercise?  The distinction relates specifically to business and the terms “soft skills” and “hard skills.”

In the American society, the term, “hard skills” usually means technical skills, and “soft skills” refers to behaviors, not skills.   Traditionally, more often than not hard skills have been more valued in the workplace than soft skills.  I believe this has something to do with the words themselves.  In a very individualistic society with management more about control than influence, it makes sense that behaviors referred to as soft would not be as valued as they need to be.  Thankfully, that is changing.  Many companies and organizations are moving from or have moved from an industrial management model to one of innovation and empowerment.  Our language and the words we use need to follow suit.

In a recent Parker and Lynch Weekender report the following statistic was given:  “In a CareerBuilder survey, 77% of employers considered soft skills just as important as hard skills.”  In that same report, the following were listed as “The top 10 soft skills companies look for when hiring: 1. Strong work ethic (73 %;) 2. Being dependable (73 %;) 3. Positive attitude (72 %;) 4. Self motivation (66 %;) 5. Being team oriented (60 %;) 6. Being organized (57 %;) 7. Working well under pressure (57 %;) 8. Effective communication (56 %;) 9. Flexibility (51 %;) 10. Confidence (46 %.)

I recommend changing “soft skills” to “human skills,” and give the credit for this idea to a businessman I heard who first used this distinction in a meeting in South Africa almost 16 years ago.  Since then I have consistently referred to these skills as human skills for the reasons noted above.  I have tried to spread this gospel, with little success.

I think the term “technical skills” should replace “hard skills.”   That is really what hard skills are, and the term has no negative connotation, at least in my opinion.

I now ask for your help.  And please, do not consider this word smiting or unimportant.  Surely we can think of other words that we have removed from our vocabulary for various reasons.  Some words we no longer commonly use negate the value of others, and we have consciously removed those from our vocabulary.  I see this change as equally important.

As always, I am interested in your opinions about my musings.  I am even more interested in you helping me make these changes.  After all, what we think is important, but what we do is at least equally and maybe more, important.  Thank you!

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About Patti Fralix

Patti Fralix inspires positive change in work, life, and family through Speaking, Consulting, and Coaching in three specialty areas: Leadership, Managing Differences, and Customer Service. Her leadership firm, The Fralix Group, Inc., has been helping clients achieve practical and tangible results for twenty-two years.
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