Why I think there is nothing wrong with the term ‘Soft Skills’

Simon Sinek gave a passionate explanation as to why he hates the term ‘Soft Skills’; A majority of experts surveyed were against the term; Even the U.S. Army has a problem with referring to leadership and communication skills as ‘Soft’.

The reluctance to assign the term “soft” to such a critical assortment of skills is understandable, as people don’t associate the word ‘soft’ with anything we want to become. For example, people go to the gym to get hard abs, not a soft tummy. Why should we invest time in learning something that makes us softer, when softer is practically synonymous with weaker?

Many attempts have been made to find a replacement for the much-maligned term ‘Soft Skills’, which includes:

  • People Skills
  • 21st Century Skills
  • Personal Skills
  • Interpersonal Skills
  • Relational Skills
  • Social Skills
  • Communication Skills
  • Psychosocial Skills
  • Character Skills
  • Essential Skills
  • Human Skills
  • Applied Skills
  • Personal Success Skills
  • Entrepreneurial Skills
  • Holistic Skills
  • Durable Skills
  • Non-Cognitive Skills
  • Emotional Skills
  • Professional Skills
  • Transferable Skills
  • Employability Skills
  • Enterprise Skills
  • Essential Skills
  • Behavioral Skills
  • Power Skills
  • Core Skills
  • Life Skills
  • Basic Skills
  • Business Skills
  • Workplace Skills

Despite these efforts, I believe the term ‘Soft Skills’ is here to stay not because of its accuracy, but because it encompasses every skill that is not a ‘Hard Skill.’ It can be easily argued that ‘Hard Skill’ is also problematic, but these two rough buckets of skills provide just enough utility to streamline everyday conversation. For better or worse, people understand what you means when you say, “Soft Skills.”

The term ‘Soft Skills’ itself is not the problem, but instead, it’s the images the term evokes in our minds. I embrace the term ‘soft skills’ because to me it evokes the image of Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) rather than fluffy bunnies snuggling plush blankets.

If you ask a hardcore fan of MMA to give their opinion of the hardest and softest martial arts, without exception, they would say Thai Boxing is the hardest, and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is the softest

If one were looking for the hardest practitioner of the hardest martial art, one has to look no further than Buakaw. Buakaw wins fights by smashing the pointy parts of his body into the squishy parts of his opponent.

Thai boxers practice this kick by chopping down banana trees with their shin.

If one were to look for the softest practitioner of the softest martial art, Grace Gundrum comes to mind. Grace wins fights by squeezing her opponents until they say “please stop” by giving Grace a gentle tap or they fall asleep.

Grace using the “Rubber Guard,” a technique invented by her coach Eddie Bravo.

Which martial art is most effective: Smashing your shin into the bridge of someone’s nose or hugging someone with your legs until they become sleepy? In 1993, the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) was established to answer this question.

At the start of the UFC, there were very few rules, and it is conceivable that back in 1993, Grace and Buakaw may have been locked in a cage and told to fight until one of them was submitted or knocked out. What we know today is, beyond a shadow of a doubt, Grace would have won in precisely the following manner:

  1. The fight would start.
  2. Buakaw would advance on Grace, attempting to punch, kick, knee, and elbow her into unconsciousness.
  3. Grace would duck beneath Buakaw’s strikes, wrap herself around Buakaw’s legs, and trip him to the ground, where he would be virtually helpless never having learned a ‘soft’ martial art.
  4. Grace would put Buakaw’s neck, arm, or leg between her legs and squeeze until Buakaw gave up due to the pain of having his joints torn apart, or he lost consciousness due to his brain being starved of oxygen.
  5. Grace would be declared the winner.

It was Royce Gracie who proved this fact again and again by winning the first and second UFC championship. Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu was undeniably vastly superior – at least in the beginning of the UFC.

Royce Gracie is the kinder and gentler version of his brother Rickson

One would have assumed that the soft art of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu would have become a must-learn skill for all martial artists. However, some martial artists refused to add such a “soft” skill to their existing “hard” skillset.

At that time, the vast majority of fighters were men, and these manly men did not want to put other men between their legs. Despite the clear and obvious superiority of the “soft” Brazilian martial art, the very thought of winning a fight by pressing another man’s face into your groin was simply unacceptable. This sentiment is captured perfectly by the now infamous quote by Chael Sonnen:

“Even if I thought I could get a submission, I’m not laying underneath a grown man with my legs spread on worldwide TV. Some guys subscribe to that theory, but I am a Republican, and we don’t do that.”

This quote is infamous because of how Chael lost his one and only chance at winning the UFC championship from the most dominant MMA champion of his era, Anderson Silva. 

Chael was on the verge of beating Silva after five dominating rounds. The fight’s outcome was such a foregone conclusion that the announcers were already congratulating Chael on his seemingly inevitable victory. However, before the final round ended, Silva – a practitioner of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu – forcibly pushed Chael’s face into his groin and squeezed. Chael tapped out, lost the fight, and would end his career never earning a championship.

After retirement, Chael studied and earned a black belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu after laying underneath many, many men with his legs spread for many, many hundreds of hours. In all likelihood, both these men and Chael were sweaty and breathing hard as they practiced the highly effective martial art of groin squeezing.

Chael is 2nd from the right, having learned his lesson that “Soft” is not “Weak.”

The story should end here, with all of the combat sports coalescing into Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and all other martial arts fading into obscurity. However, this is not what happened. Instead, people realized that while soft beats hard, a combination of soft and hard was superior to either soft or hard alone. This realization created the current trend of truly “Mixed” Martial Artists.

If one were to look for a Mixed Martial Arts champion who best embodied a balance of hard and soft skills, Amanda Nunes comes to mind.

Amanda Nunes is a double-champ across two weight classes in women’s MMA

Amanda punched Ronda Rousey so hard she retired from MMA.

The seemingly unbeatable Ronda Rousey had been kicked to sleep by Holly Holm.

Holly would later be kicked to sleep by Nunes.

Amanda Nunes, despite her ferocious knockouts, has more than just ‘Hard Skills.’ She also has a black belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, granting her ‘Soft Skills’ that open up entirely new possibilities for how she can win fights.

Amanda giving a hug before naptime
Her opponent’s head, neck, arm, and shoulder are all feeling Amanda’s ‘Soft Skills’
Amanda with her baby and partner immediately after a victory

Amanda is a “Mixed Martial Artist.” She and other Mixed Martial Artists blend the best aspects of Hard Skills and Soft Skills into a complete package where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. 

I see Hard Skills as analogous to Thai Boxing:

  • Computer Programming
  • Statistical Analysis
  • User Interface Design
  • Graphic Design
  • Accounting and Finance
  • Business Development
  • Marketing
  • Copywriting
  • Database Management
  • Photo Video Editing

I see Soft Skills as analogous to Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu:

  • Empathy
  • Listening
  • Professionalism
  • Assertiveness
  • Negotiation
  • Collaboration
  • Adaptability
  • Accountability
  • Delegation
  • Agility

I believe that top-performing employees need a mix of both Hard and Soft Skills, just as top-performing MMA champions do.

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