Soft skills are the skills that aren't hard. Like holding an egg. Not particularly difficult, unless the shells broken I suppose. I kid. It's a generic term referring to the social/interpersonal skills necessary for proper communication. They are very important, and they only get more so when you're not in the office with someone. I don't want to write a rehash of Carnegie's How to Win Friends and Influence People, so let's take a look at this in terms of a few common occurrences. These are situations that will come up, and how/why there's some more effective ways of dealing with them than we might normally go with.

  • Canceling an appointment/meeting
    • Rescheduling an appointment/meeting
  • Following up on communication with someone that hasn't responded
  • Giving someone bad news
    • Giving a colleague bad news
    • Giving a superior bad news

Canceling an appointment/meeting

I hate having to cancel meetings/appointments. It makes me feel a bit like an ass. However it's something that happens. During all of this quarantine work it's going to happen a lot, especially if you have kids. Stuff comes up. You're going to have an innate desire to explain yourself and get buy-in from the person you're canceling on. Restrain yourself. There's two points here.

One is that explaining yourself frames the conversation in the context that they have to approve. That's not a great way to present it. Just let them know that you need to cancel.

The second is that you're probably going to want to do is reschedule, probably for tomorrow right? You're going to have that response, but be sure that you can do it tomorrow/whenever you reschedule. I don't mind if people cancel on me due to something coming up, but I get pretty irritated when they keep rescheduling and then proceed to cancel on me again. You are wasting the time of the person you're meeting every time you cancel. So if you cancel, reschedule, then cancel again then you're telling them that you don't respect their time. It's literally wasting twice as much of their time. It's pretty shitty. I've literally lost friends over people repeatedly flaking on their commitments. If we're going to meet up and you keep canceling then I'm just going to assume that you don't have any desire to meet up. You definitely aren't prioritizing it. This really comes down to priorities. Also from a interpersonal perspective it's a form of rejection. They took the time, twice, to meet with you and you rejected it. That's probably not your intention, but that's the subconscious context to those kinds of actions. If you don't know your schedule, then set a time to talk about it. I have a friend that is very busy, and we meet for lunch occasionally. We usually set a time on a Monday when both of us know our schedule for the week and then set up a time to do lunch (I feel douchey even typing that, but here we are).

So if you have to cancel/reschedule,

  1. Keep it short and to the point
  2. If you have to reschedule then make sure it's a time that you can make it.
    • If you don't know what time to make it then set a time to follow up and see what your schedule is.

Follow up with somebody that hasn't responded

So here's a scenario. There's a goose and you're hungry. You're mostly vegetarian, but geese are assholes. Wait... Sorry I got distracted. A colleague/boss hasn't gotten back to you about something that needs to be addressed.

In a previous post I went over setting reminders on emails/messages that need to have a follow up. I set reminders all the time to follow up on a task in a set amount of time. So what happens is I send the first email then set a calendar reminder for a few days/a week later to follow up. What does that follow up look like? I used to feel weird about sending follow-ups. I thought I was badgering people and as a result my emails had a weird voice, mildly accusatory and awkward. That's not generally the best way to get somebody to respond, and, in general, it's not a good look.

I've found a simple

"I'm sending this as a follow-up from the other day. If you need anything else please let me know, and I look forward to hearing back from you."

A couple of points.

  • This needs to be a reply to the previous email, not a new email, or the person will have to find it, which decreases the likelihood of a response. You can do a reply and edit the subject though, I occasionally did that, but it's on a case by case basis, mostly just do a reply.
  • If you think it sounds weird it probably does. Try reading it out loud to yourself. That's a good trick on writing in general. Your ear hears weird word choice in your voice better than you do with your internal voice.

Giving someone bad news

Giving someone bad news is never pleasant. Unless you don't like them. Then it's fun, but you have to hide your joy which is unpleasant in subtler ways. I kid. Mostly (I'm thinking of a customer that once threatened to picket me at a store I worked at doing tech bench work). For giving bad news you have a few options. Which one you pick is going to depend on a few factors.

  1. Are they your superior, a colleague, or a subordinate?
  2. Do they handle bad news well?
    • Do they react emotionally or pragmatically to bad news?

An old stand-by is called the shit sandwich. You start with good news, give bad news, then end with a compliment. It's pretty obvious, and I don't think it's that effective, but it is better than just yelling at people, or being passive-aggressive (please don't be passive-aggressive. It's a terrible look and is one of the quickest ways to lose my respect. It speaks to a weak character and lack of accountability).

A great way to give bad news to a superior is to lead with the resolution.

"I did this thing to address this issue that we were having. It's totally working now."

If that's not necessarily possible you can also end with how you improved process to make sure that it didn't happen again. Mistakes aren't inherently bad, they are only bad if they are truly catastrophic (rare), or you don't do anything to prevent them again.

Giving bad news to your subordinate is unpleasant in other ways. I try to communicate with my team, so if bad news is coming they generally expect it at least a little bit. I've found that calmly telling them, then letting them respond works out OK. If you think somebody is truly going to flip out then try doing it via email, then they'll have time to calm down before seeing you. However, don't do this to cover up your own cowardice about giving bad news. Do it as a kindness to your subordinate if you think it's warranted. Regardless, try to be clear, non-judgements, and unambiguous. People tend to react well to that tone.

Final Thoughts

Soft skills are something that don't always translate well to a remote context. I know people that are amazing in person that suck via email. You can improve though. It's a skill that you have to work on developing, and we all are developing it together right now.