Getting Specific on Soft Skills for UX Professionals
Published: February 8, 2016
My last column received tremendous feedback with regard to the importance of soft skills in the profession of User Experience. One consistent theme was the desire for me to get more specific about the types of soft skills that are often lacking in UX professional’s interactions. To answer this request, I will touch upon the following five soft skills in this column:
- conflict resolution
- argumentation and negotiation
- gravitas mixed with social grace
A mentor of mine once told me that the majority of what we do in the business world is essentially improvisation. Despite all the time we spend doing strategic planning for our work, we still end up having to improvise because changing environments, technologies, and circumstances. Improvising successfully requires a great deal of adaptability.
Most humans have some level of resistance to change. While it’s not easy, adapting to change is critical to our success. One thing I have learned over the years is that, if I initially have a negative reaction to something, I cannot leave it there. We all need to be able to take a step back, in a sense, and examine why our initial reactions are what they are. Taking the time to challenge our assumptions and reactions often allows us to reconsider change in a positive way.
Being able to work well within various work environments is also key to not only our professional success, but also to our mental health. As a consultant, I’ve worked in hundreds of different customer environments. Some were very pleasant, others less so. However, by focusing on the tasks I need to do, I am able to see beyond political and cultural clashes and actually to shape them versus being shaped by them.
It is pretty clear that communication skills are some of the most essential soft skills for UX professionals to have. Yet I find that the communication skills of many UX people leave a lot of room for improvement. I see many deficiencies in non-verbal communication in my consulting work. Walking into a meeting late, sitting with your arms crossed, conveying an air of arrogance about a design are all highly damaging to your ability to communicate. And that is before you even open your mouth to say something.
Our body language is important because a key opening tactic in our ability to be effective communicators is building rapport. While this is often overlooked, having the ability to build rapport with an audience—no matter how large or small—paves the way to smooth communication. It’s one of those hard-to-pin-down soft skills, but our body language, looking people in the eye, and speaking in a friendly style, all contribute to that harmonious feeling people get when interacting with someone they click with.
In our work, we are always dealing with various levels of conflict. For example, there may be conflict around differing design ideas or between what we think is important versus what other leaders think is important. Sometimes conflict is good, spurring ideas and innovation. Sometimes it is really bad for us professionally—especially when it causes disruption and you have a leader who thrives on disruption. As a consultant, I see a lot of professional conflict between business and technology groups. Sometimes the conflicts even get personal.
Consultants are somewhat insulated from getting deeply involved in an organization’s conflicts, but they still affect us. Having skills in conflict resolution is very important to helping you navigate what can be very tricky paths through your own or another organization.
Being able to broker collaboration is the best possible outcome in resolving conflict. In this scenario, all parties get aligned to the same goal and work toward it together. However, this method of dealing with conflict is also the most time-consuming approach and requires a real desire on the part of everyone involved to actually solve a problem. Still, it remains the best option.
Other methods of dealing with conflict usually leave one or more parties feeling unsatisfied. Compromising, agreeing to disagree, or putting anyone in a position where they feel they have lost while others have won ensures that the same conflict will keep rearing its ugly head.
Argumentation and Negotiation
After conflict resolution, being able to argue or negotiate a resolution successfully is the next most critical soft skill to getting the things done that you need to do. The ability to argue in a way that does not make someone feel like you’re attacking them personally or undermining them professionally is an excellent soft skill to have.
Being effective at this skill really comes down to being persuasive. Selling is hard for a lot of UX people, but the right mindset is necessary to be effective. Having purpose in the way you negotiate is important—as is knowing what you should advocate for—and both show that you believe strongly in what you’re advocating. Colleagues will not take a person who argues or tries to negotiate everything, no matter how small, as seriously as someone who advocates for things that truly matter.
Another important aspect of this skill is the ability to really listen. UX folks are an impassioned bunch—and with good reason. However, that sometimes translates into a habit of listening to respond rather than listening to understand. When we do this, we demean our advocacy and turn people off very quickly.
The fifth and final soft skill that it is necessary to master happens also to be my favorite: gravitas is one of the most critical business soft skills. Don't believe me? In 2012, a study by communications analytics firm Quantified Communications showed that “a speaker’s tone, appearance, and demeanor” were up to nine times more effective at capturing an audience than the actual content the speaker provided. That means a speaker with enough gravitas could basically read a dictionary word by word and still capture the attention of an audience.
All four of the previous soft skills that I’ve described in this column blend together to create powerful gravitas. By communicating with purpose, looking people in the eye, truly listening when people talk to us, and knowing how to persuade, we can convey a sense of gravitas in a very accelerated manner. This is one of those things that make people want to collaborate with us.
As I mentioned in my previous column on the topic of soft skills, having our hard skills in place is obviously a core piece of what UX professionals do. But to be able to practice our hard skills most effectively, we need always to be developing our soft skills in parallel. If we fail to recognize the importance of these soft skills and neglect their development, we run the risk of our forever striving for the proper sense of place that UX deserves.