So in my last post I talked about the different types of skill sets we have.  I mentioned that job-specific skills aren't usually what cause problems within the workplace, but rather what are called adaptive skills -  the emotional and social competencies we acquired in childhood and adolescence that we bring with us into adulthood.  These tend to be the foundational skills from which we function, and they include (but aren't limited to):  

  • How you relate to others and make people feel
  • How you understand and express yourself
  • How you react and respond
  • How open you are to receive 
  • How you deal with anxiety
  • How well you listen and communicate
  • How you handle change

Studies show that it's these types of skills that tend to make or break our success in the workplace.  

People sometimes feel discouraged when I mention that our adaptive skills come with us from childhood.  But here's the great thing: our adaptive skills aren't locked in!  In fact, the very definition of personal growth is "the ability to improve our adaptive skills."  

So then, how do we set about improving our adaptive skills?

First of all, let's be clear about how we don't improve our adaptive skills: it doesn't happen by gritting our teeth, squeezing our eyes shut and thinking really hard to ourselves, "I have to feel respect for her...I have to feel respect for her...I have to feel..." only to realize that, nope, it didn't work – we still hate her guts.  Pure intestinal fortitude doesn't lead to an improvement in our adaptive skills.

The trick to improving our adaptive skills starts with the realization that how we feel inside doesn't actually impact anyone other than ourselves.  What does impact others, however, is the way we behave on the outside, through things such as body language, tone of voice, actions and words.  So how do we begin to change all that?  Well, first we have to:

A.  Learn what the new specific adaptive skill looks like, meaning: figure out the types of individual behaviors and actions – not feelings – the new adaptive skill requires.  

B.  Practice those behaviors a lot.  Like, a LOT a lot.

And yes, there is obviously a mental component to all of this...some self talk that will accompany your journey toward improvement.  But we’ll save that for a future post.  For now, let’s just focus on the behaviors.  For example, what are the behaviors that accompany the adaptive skill of “Listening so that the other person feels heard?”   How about:  

  • Focused body language
  • Not interrupting
  • Good eye contact
  • Putting aside distractions (computers, phones, etc.)
  • Asking good questions with an open and non-defensive tone
  • Paraphrasing what the other person said 


Making changes to your adaptive skills generally involves going through the following 4 stages:

  1. Unconscious Incompetence.  In other words: "Ignorance is bliss."  This is that stage where you have no idea that you’re being perceived as defensive, hostile, disengaged, unresponsive or inconsiderate.   
  2. Conscious Incompetence.  This is usually the most painful stage because it's where you begin to receive feedback or notice negative results.  You then have to make the conscious decision to move past your denial and acknowledge that you have some deficits in your adaptive skill set.  (It’s the healthiest people, by the way, who are able to experience this stage, and, along with their pain, give themselves grace and patience as they rise to the challenge of improvement.)   
  3. Conscious Competence.  The hard work stage.  This is the stage of improvement where you are consciously and intentionally practicing your new behaviors in the moment, and it can be little exhausting. In the case of the above mentioned adaptive skill (listening so others feel heard), it involves consciously closing your mouth while the other person is talking, forming good questions and helpful paraphrases, making yourself use good eye contact, etc.  This stage reminds me of how it feels to learn a new song on the piano:  I have to look at every note while mentally connecting each one to a specific piano key... and if you try to talk to me while I’m playing, I either stop or I completely ignore you, because all my concentration is on the task at hand.  This is the kind of effort and energy that Conscious Competence often requires.  
  4. Unconscious Competence.  This is the exciting and rewarding part: realizing that you are actually good at the skill without having to try very hard!  I love it when I see this happen in my clients.  In my piano playing analogy, it’s when I'm finally able to play the song and talk to my wife at the same time!   The music seems to come almost naturally.   

I began working on my personal listening skills 12 years ago because, well, my listening skills sucked.  And while today they may not be absolutely perfect (I still occasionally struggle with interrupting, using too much airtime and forgetting to ask questions) the good news is that in the past six months I have received the following feedback on four different occasions:  “Mike, you are a really good listener.”   It made my day every time!