How would you rank your soft skills as a twelve-year-old?  I didn’t even consider being natural around others a skill.

I had no idea I could improve by seeing every social interaction as an opportunity for practice, and stop avoiding every possible chance of awkward moments by keeping my mouth shut.

The Kids Table

If you ever attended a social gathering as a kid that included grown-ups, you probably remember the infamous “kids table”. I know I do.

I remember the feeling of being set aside, denied a glimpse into the grown-ups world by being banished to a smaller table, where other people of small size had to sit next to each other while eating.

The only thing we had in common was the fact that we weren’t adults, and as such had limited experience with small talk. Sparking up conversations with strangers doesn’t usually come naturally for twelve-year-olds, especially when left to their own devices and there’s no playing involved.

Sparking up conversations with strangers doesn’t usually come naturally for twelve-year-olds

The Crushing Silence

I recently re-lived the pain of the kids’ table, but only as an observer thank god. It was hard to watch. A couple of kids, from a wide-ranging selection of ages, sat together while eating, and they had nothing to say to each other. As in, absolutely nothing.

The silence was ear-deafening, especially the few moments when the adults also fell silent and everyone felt the absolute lack of conversation. Not much we could do but ignore it. Someone tried a humorous “don’t make too much noise now, children!” which only made the situation even more awkward, as they stared into their plates with a forced half-smile.

Young girl working on soft skills with Mickey Mouse and other friends at a make-believe tea party, 1930s

Easier to get a conversation going with Mickey Mouse and his doll-gang, no doubt. Source: Flickr

Oh, how I felt for those kids, and how they awakened long forgotten memories of that dreaded table where people untrained in the gentle art of small talk was forced to converge.

Soft Skills Are Hard

Speaking to someone you don’t know can be painful, but I have no doubt it’s a skill that can be improved. It seems that a lot of people believe small talk and being natural around others is an inherent trait, that some people were just born that way. I don’t buy that for a second.

It seems that a lot of people believe small talk and being natural around others is an inherent trait, that some people were just born that way. I don’t buy that for a second.

And I should know — I’ve lived most of my life like that, finding almost any interaction with people I don’t know or trust excruciating. I would go to great lengths to avoid these situations, and I believe that the early burns I had from the kid’s table have contributed to this.

Lately, however, I’ve improved a lot. Not only because of more experience, which I think will only get you so far if you keep resisting it — but because of a change in how I approach it.

Sure, some people might be born and raised in a way that makes it easier for them, but that doesn’t mean those of us who hasn’t can’t become competent networkers in spite of our introversion.

Going Up Against Our Brain

Our brain is wired to avoid situations that might feel uncomfortable and wants us to take the path of least resistance. This is a trait that’s kept us alive for a long time and that explains a lot of our behavior.

The discomfort hasn’t completely disappeared, it’s just gotten much better and I now consider these situations a chance to grow which slowly reduces the amount of pain involved. I also consider it an opportunity to get to know someone better which usually proves to be beneficial in several ways, something I hadn’t bothered to consider earlier (or maybe chose to ignore).

Our brain is wired to avoid uncomfortable situations and seeks the path of least resistance. Click To Tweet

With age, I’ve not only gotten more experience, but my mindset has changed: I stopped being so scared of failing and started seeing it an opportunity for growth. I’m far from a pro and I still have a lot to learn, but I’m getting there.

Who Should Teach Us Soft Skills?

If you’re reading this I’ll assume you agree that connecting with others is not only something we should learn to avoid embarrassment but a skill that can bring many great things to those who do it well. In the connection economy, it’s more important than ever, it’s something that we can’t ignore by leaving the young ones to their own devices.

I can think of several classes I had during my education that would be better spent on theories around connection, role playing, getting used to the idea that a slightly awkward interaction is not the end of the world, practicing easy topics to talk about and so on. The list of useful ways to train our future talents is endless. Just imagine if we spent a small portion on honing soft skills instead of trying to teach them to memorize what year Franz Ferdinand was shot, what’s the capital of Kazakhstan or other things we can look up on our smartphones in a matter of seconds.

Sure, there’s a load of information available on the web today, articles, guides, tutorials, courses, podcasts etc. that will teach you these skills. But as stated, many don’t even consider this to be a teachable skill, you’ve either got the gift or you haven’t. Sucks to be you. I think this is an important factor when considering what’s important when putting kids through the education machinery, and schools seem to be lagging behind in this area.

Our Education System Is Outdated

Please correct me if I’m wrong, I want to believe a lot has changed in the years since I went to school but from what I can tell, it does not look like there’s been a revolution. I wish our schools would be more inclined to leave the industrial model and see the education of our future generations as something completely different.

I wish our schools would be more inclined to leave the industrial model and see the education of our future generations as something completely different.

Maybe a good place to start would be focusing on how to develop practical social skills and deal with social anxieties instead of teaching how to memorize vast amounts of useless knowledge.

What is Education For?

What’s the main purpose of an education? As I see it, it’s to make the students able to get a job, to produce valuable output, to solve problems, and to lead. Nothing’s more important when it comes to getting a job than your soft skills, yet there’s no real responsibility taken as far as I can tell in the education system that deals with this problem in a serious manner. And that’s a problem, seeing as public speaking often tops the charts when people are asked to reveal their biggest fear.

Don’t get me wrong, education is an extremely complex topic and I’m not suggesting we start forcing teenagers into mingling workshops. But putting a poor kid in front of a class, forcing her to recite her latest report while stuttering as a way to improve her presentation skills seems like a weak effort to me. Exposure is a good thing, but I many other skills and preparations need to be in place if that’s supposed to resemble personal growth.

How do you think we should prepare our kids for the challenges of connecting with others? Are schools already doing what they can with their limited resources? Should school’s even be dealing with soft skills or is this a private responsibility? Leave your thoughts in the comment section below.

I write about personal growth, psychology, leadership, relationships and soft skills at The Neural Grind.

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