The Challenge Of Teaching Soft Skills

The Challenge of Teaching Soft Skills
Summary: It is easy to lecture on soft skills and then for students to pass a test showing that they have learned the material. But will behavior really change as a result of the lecture and testing? Do role plays result in behavioral change? Research shows that behavior changes at a minimum require repeated practice with extensive feedback. Simulation technology now offers the capability to go past traditional training and produce effective soft skills training.

The Soft Skills Challenge

I first became aware of the challenge of teaching soft skills while I was at the FBI Academy in 1995. I was working for a Johns Hopkins University think tank which supports DoD and NASA technology and we were identifying big challenges where new technologies could be used to help law enforcement and counterterrorism personnel. In our discussions, it was pointed out that a big challenge was to teach special agent trainees how to conduct a criminal investigation, a fundamental Bureau soft skill. A key component is to teach people to say things that are appropriate for the situation, but may not be natural to say; that is, to interact with people in a way that is new. At that time, the FBI’s training consisted of about 40 hours of classroom training, working with mentors, followed by more classes, and more mentors.

Training soft skills is challenging regardless of the discipline, whether it is sales or suicide intervention, leadership or addiction counseling. A technique used by addiction counselors is called Motivational Interviewing or MI.  Research has proven this technique to be very effective, but like other soft skills, MI requires saying things that may not be natural or intuitive for counselors. Extensive research shows that MI is difficult to train. Specifically, counselors can read up on the techniques and take workshops, but the research shows that they perform the same six months after the training as they did prior to the training. Unfortunately, trained counselors perceive they are applying the MI techniques properly. People successfully learn MI by taking the workshops and then recording real counseling secessions and having independent experts review the recordings and provide feedback. Practice and extensive feedback appears to be the key to success.

Training Approaches

In addition to mentor programs and careful review of recorded work to provide feedback, many organizations, including Achieve Global and Integrity Sales, address the challenge by providing follow up training after the basic training is complete. Still there is real concern that behavior changes do not last, and privately people have admitted that even with follow-on training, the change in behavior does not last. Training any skill requires learning the concepts, engaging in extensive practice, and receiving feedback. Is there a way to train soft skills that can combine the educational content of traditional methods, with the repeated practice and extensive feedback that make skills last, all using the internet? Simulation offers an approach.

Simulation for Teaching Soft Skills

The US government spends billions of dollars a year developing and training people using simulations. Industry also knows the value of training using simulations. A Boeing 747 pilot will spend hours practicing in a realistic flight simulator before ever flying a real plane. While trainees don’t experience the same G-forces, the experience must be realistic with the same visual sensations experienced in the 747. To successfully train soft skills the same principles must be applied, only rather than a plane, a person needs to be simulated and that person must seem real. There must be extensive feedback and the educational content at the user’s fingertips. As much as possible, the user should experience a wide range of situations.

My First Training System

The first simulation I developed meeting these requirements was for the FBI in 1998. [Reference 1] The simulated person was sometimes innocent and sometimes guilty of a crime, yet each play of the simulation was guaranteed to be different. The simulation included a model for emotions to replicate longer-term changes in rapport. Video was used to capture the subtleties in human behavior. The system was design to require trainees to think about what they should say as they went through the conversation as opposed to effectively being a multiple choice test, each time selecting the best one of five choices. When using the system, the agent trainees were in the boot camp stage of their training and were only asked to use a laboratory computer to play the system for a few minute. In spite of being sleep deprived, the trainees volunteered 6.5 hours on the system. This speaks to how engaging the simulation was in 1998. The more students played, the more their scores improved, but the question remained: were their skills really improving?

Simulation Training Efficacy

The question of efficacy remained until sufficient funding could be found for a formal research study on SIMmersion’s Alcohol Intervention Training System. Screening and Brief Interventions training was an integral part of the simulation training, while Referral training was not. In 2007, the School of Medicine and Public Health at the University of Wisconsin, Madison performed a study involving 100 healthcare providers as subjects, including MDs, PAs, RNs and forth year medical students. To start off, the subjects were tested for their skills in delivering alcohol screenings, brief interventions, and referrals using three different standardized patients to play the roles of someone who may be abusing alcohol. The subjects were scored on their initial abilities. Fifty subjects were then randomly assigned to the research group and given the opportunity to train and the 50 others were assigned to the control group. The subjects in the research group were provided with the simulation training system and shown how to install it. After six months, all 100 subjects returned and were again tested using three different standardized patient encounters. The research group showed significantly more improvement in their skills than the control group for screening, brief interventions, but not for referral. I was pleased to see that the simulation approach provided long-term changes in behavior.


Training soft skills will always be challenging since it requires people to change the way they communicate, and habits that have been developed over a lifetime. Other on-going research shows that simulations can be very effective if the technology provides educational materials matching the experience gained using the simulation, allows for repeated practice, and provides extensive feedback.


1) Own Einspahr; The Interview Challenge, FBI Bulletin, April 2000

2) Fleming, M., Olsen, D., Boteler, L., Stathes, H., Grossberg, P., Pfiefer, J., Schiro, S., Banning, J., & Skochelak, S. (2009). Virtual reality skills training for health care professionals in alcohol screening and brief intervention. Journal of the American Board of Family Medicine, 22(4), 387–398. doi: 10.3122/jabfm.2009.04.080208