Getting Tough with Soft Skills: How to Teach Behaviors Through Online Training

By Veronica Phillips

Teaching to impart a skill is inherently different than teaching to impart knowledge. With an eLearning course, designers have the added challenge to create a course that allows learners to practice behavioral skills, also known as soft skills, in a medium that does not always lend itself to interpersonal interactions. By employing the tips below, you can facilitate the process of learning behavioral skills online. These tips will help you to ensure that your course motivates your learner, that you’ve made the material relevant to the learner by providing examples of behavioral indicators they can observe and detect, and that you’re enabling learners to apply the material to their own lives by structuring assessments and feedbacks throughout the course and by including take-home messages.

Businesses have long used online courses to teach “hard skills,” such as typing and software development. But increasingly they’ve also turned to eLearning to impart “soft skills” (also known as behavioral skills)—people-oriented capabilities like project management or conflict resolution, which traditionally have been taught in the classroom. Online training provides a handy solution for imparting behavioral skills to the fresh crop of young, inexperienced workers entering the job force, reducing the time it can take to learn those skills in the “real” world.

Often, online soft skills courses can be less expensive than those offered in a classroom. A virtual environment also allows learners to make consequence-free mistakes—if the employee makes a flub, your business won’t lose clients/customers/money. However, simulating interpersonal skills in a virtual environment can be tricky, because many of these skills by definition require human interaction. You can ensure you get the most out of your soft skills course design by keeping in mind the tips mentioned here.

Knowledge vs. Skills

Designing a course to impart knowledge is different than developing a training to impart a skill. Think of all the tasks an employee would complete in a typical workday—for example, logging hours in a time sheet, helping customers select a product suitable to their needs, programming a widget, sending an email. Which of these tasks are skills and which simply require knowledge of the task to complete?

According to instructional designer Julie Dirksen, the way to differentiate between a skill and knowledge is simple: ask yourself, “Is it reasonable to think someone can be proficient at this task without practice?” If the answer is yes, then that task is not a skill.

Practice

We’ve hit on a key distinction between knowledge and skills. Many learning courses are designed strictly to communicate information to learners. But just having knowledge doesn’t mean learners will be able to apply it. The process of designing to impart knowledge poses a challenge. You have to:

  • Keep your content concise
  • Build on the learner’s prior knowledge
  • Be sure to address any misconceptions the learner may have

To keep the learner engaged, introduce some “friction”—that is, control the course’s flow so learners don’t barrel through the content they think they already know.

For learners to master a skill, the key is to design opportunities for practice, practice, and more practice. Space the skills practices throughout the course and manage the flow of the content so there is an engaging interplay between ability and challenge for the learner.

Fortunately, you are not confined to a strict regimen of example-practice-assess when teaching skills. Social and other media provide a multitude of design opportunities that complement the goals and strategies of teaching and practicing a skill online, namely motivating the learner, showing the skills in action with examples, and incorporating positive and negative behavioral indicators.

Motivate

Soft skills trainings get a bad rep because a lot of people think it’s a waste of time. In part, this belief exists because it is not particularly easy to measure how well a soft skill has been learned. For hard skills, training results are clearer—after taking a course, you can either change a tire or you can’t—but it usually takes time to see the results of effective soft skills training. Another reason why many people don’t line up to take soft skills courses is that learning soft skills can be, well, boring.

Tackle both of these misconceptions by stating up front why it’s important to attain these skills. Make a connection between the specific skill—selling a product, managing a project, leading employees—and your organization’s mission. Point out not only why having the skill is beneficial, but also why not having the skill is detrimental to the learner’s personal performance or to the company.

You can incorporate social media to allow learners to share their experiences of situations in which having the skill might have led to a different outcome. For example, would a perpetually tardy employee still have been dismissed if the manager had communicated the problem differently? Would it have been necessary to remove one co-leader from a project if the manager had been skilled in conflict resolution?

Social media is also a good way to seed discussions about different problem scenarios and ask learners to suggest solutions based on their training. You can also include an Ask the Expert tool.

Above all, use media to reinforce the message of the course and highlight the points the learner should carry through into their real life.

Provide Examples

Because soft skills concepts like conflict resolution and client communications can be abstract, do anything you can to provide concrete examples of the behavior you’re trying to teach. There is significant research supporting the idea that content that utilizes the brain’s affective reasoning system is a better driver of behavior than abstract analytical information like graphs, charts, and statistics, which goes through the brain’s cognitive reasoning system. Make your content as affective or personal as possible by creating character profiles or framing content as a narrative or story.

Along with examples, you can also use definitions, suggested steps, and illustrations of how to use the skill. Whatever social media you choose—case sharing or forums—and whatever method you use—scenario-based learning or an interactive narrative profile—remember that you’re trying to change the learner’s behavior. To do that, you need to appeal to the learner’s experiences or affective reasoning.

Behavioral Indicators

One way to incorporate examples into soft skills courses is to brainstorm a list of positive and negative behavioral indicators that demonstrate competency in the soft skill you’re trying to teach. For example, for selling a customer a new mobile phone, some positive behavioral indicators could be:

  • Listening to the customer’s needs and evaluating those against products for sale
  • Relating the product specifications to what the customer would actually use it for
  • Recommending additional accessories for the product

In contrast, some negative behavioral indicators could be:

  • Asking the customer only yes or no questions
  • Providing a laundry list of product specifications
  • Suggesting a product solution without listening to the customer’s needs

Remember that the key to learning any new skill is practicing it—repeatedly. First, however, the learner needs to see it in action. Fortunately, behavioral indicators are relatively simple to model and behavioral modeling is most effectively presented through motion or activity. Include a video with a live actor or an animation depicting both effective and ineffective behaviors. Develop a mental checklist that the learner can refer to when practicing the skill, focusing on demonstrable behaviors like body language or active listening. Ask the learner to dissect the behavior in an essay, or include a checklist or assessment of key behavioral indicators and instruct the learner to note which are demonstrated effectively.

To make your media more interactive, try a spin on the usual format of user-generated content. For example, for managers who need to deal with customers making a product return, a course needs to accomplish a few tasks. First, the manager needs to be aware of the ins and outs of their store’s return policy, which is the course’s knowledge component. But more importantly, the manager needs to learn to strike a careful balance in refusing a customer’s return when necessary without offending them and potentially losing their business in the future.

Try constructing a role-play scenario that includes a video of a customer who wants to return an item and give the learner—who’s playing the role of the manager—options for how to reply. Based on the learner’s response, the scenario may continue onto multiple paths with different developments—for example, the customer becomes distressed or demands special treatment, and so on. These types of role-plays let the learner practice the skill in a risk-free, virtual environment.

Social media can also be used as a social simulator, a step beyond the eLearning course’s fabricated environment. Through social media, learners can practice core skills together regardless of how geographically dispersed they are. Learners can also seek advice and tips from other learners or an expert.

As with any eLearning course, be sure to employ a variety of media—videos, audio narrations, and interactive elements. Not only will the learner be more engaged, but you are also more likely to hit on multiple levels of learning, making the learner more likely to absorb and apply the soft skills.

Assessment and Feedback

It’s easy to slip into a pattern of example-practice-assess, but it’s the designer’s job to circumvent learners’ expectations to keep them motivated and engaged in the course. To test the learner’s comprehension, you can add an assessment after major skills modules. However, you can reinforce the skill more effectively if you incorporate constant and varied feedback throughout the course.

Design the feedback so it stresses tradeoffs rather than presenting right or wrong alternatives. Construct goals for the learner to accomplish with different timeframes spaced throughout the source. For example, the immediate goal may be to practice active listening and identify a product appropriate for a customer’s needs, and the long-term goal may be to make the sale.

After the Training

Screenshot of a training module

Provide resources for the learner to continue to think about and practice the skill after completing the course. This is especially important when you feel like you’re loading your learner up with too much information. You can provide some of it as a resource they can download and take with them. Another way to continue to provide practice opportunities after the course conclusion is to encourage learners to visualize walking through the process of completing a task that requires use of the skill. What do they need to think about before, during, and after?

Teaching Soft Skills Online

There are quite a few hurdles to jump over when it designing eLearning courses that teach soft skills. The usual guidelines for any eLearning training course apply—keep your learner walking that fine line between challenge and aptitude, be aware of whether you’re designing for a knowledge or a skill, and use media effectively to enhance the message—but there are a few other considerations specific to soft skills trainings to also bear in mind.

Design your training around concrete concepts and provide multiple and varied opportunities for the learner to practice the skills. Remind the learner both why having the skills is advantageous and why not having the skills is disadvantageous. Utilize media to make abstract ideas more poignant and social media to allow learners to practice their interpersonal skills with other people. Incorporate valuable assessments and feedback. And, perhaps most importantly, provide ways for the learner to continue thinking about the content after the course’s conclusion.

If you would like more information about how Monarch Media can help you develop an online soft skills training, please make an inquiry.