Practice of the practice

I enjoyed reading this recent piece by Jared Spool - as it relates to improving soft skills to become better practitioners over time and towards this direction as an example - in what is the design of a mature practice and team in organisations.

So question:

What do you see as the critical soft skills and example activities/tasks in which these soft skills could be practiced?

Understand the answer may be role dependant and also soft skills may well cross over into many roles that make up a project team.

Be nice to gain a clearer understanding on fundamental soft skills as this is something I was not taught 20 + years ago, rather we jumped first into methods and had to discover the soft skills along the way. Also hard to find safe forums to practice and facilitators to help this along.

Welcome book recommendations as well.


Thanks for the great question, Dan. I think a lot of people have to learn the soft skills along the way, as well as tangential, but crucial, hard skills (i.e. finances, contracts).

I don’t really have a definitive answer for you, but here are some soft skills that I’ve learned in my career and would encourage others to learn:

  • Really listening
  • Reserving gut reactions and judgement
  • Positivism/optimism
  • Negotiation/civil argument
  • Learning from everybody in every situation

I’m sure there are more, but that’s a quick dump of ones on the top of mind at the moment.

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One that’s been stupidly useful to me — interviewing technique.

These days when I talk to people about interviewing I often speak of it in terms as a general life skill rather than a particular UX research method. It’s so useful in finding better ways to talk to stakeholders as well as end-users, in sales, and so on. Outside of work contexts knowing how to really listen and have a non-directive conversation has been so useful in my personal life. In fact there’s a lot in common between the kind of techniques you use in a research interview and the kind of techniques I used as a volunteer counsellor many years ago.

As for practice — a few of the things that I do:

  • Doing it. Often.
  • Eavesdrop and retrospect. When I hear, for example, a very directive or leading question that somebody else asks on the TV or IRL, I’ll try and find alternative way of asking the same question that’s better.
  • Many questions. Focus on a particular question and try to find as many alternative, more general ways of asking it, or gathering related information. “What are you reading?” vs “What genres do you like to read?” vs “How do you discover new books?” vs “How do you entertain yourself?” vs …
  • Silence, Reflection & Stories. See how long I can keep a conversation going by not talking, reflecting back what the other person says, and asking for stories.

Great answer, I am agreed on the stupid usefulness and have some similar specifics of practice. Without much to add there, I’ll note a context I’ve found useful for practice: UberX.

Rides sans friends or colleagues provide a focused 1:1 setting without up-front expectations for conversation. Generally, you’re with individual folks who don’t have the formality of a professional driver. Some eye contact/body language work get lost in this context, but you can dig deep on questioning/silence/reflecting/story practice with your driver.

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