Soft Skills Training Also Requires Coaching

By Jathan Janove, J.D. July 17, 2023

Former employment attorney and author Jathan Janove writes for SHRM Online on how to inject greater humanity into HR compliance. Jathan welcomes your questions and suggestions for future columns. Contact him at the email address at the end of this column.   

Since the early 1990s, I have presented numerous training presentations covering anti-harassment, conflict resolution, documentation, trust building, teamwork, accountability, performance management, discipline and discharge, DE&I and other topics related to leadership, culture, and HR. 

The kinds of training listed above are in what's often labeled "soft skills," although there's plenty of evidence that when organizational leaders improve such soft skills, positive hard results follow. 

Over the years, I've become aware that this training has limited impact when it's not combined with coaching. Even when people leave the training room motivated to practice what was taught, results tend to be disappointing. Why? 

One reason is blind spots. Most of us aren't aware of what I call the "Three Realities Gap." The three realities are: (1) what we perceive we say or do; (2) what we actually say or do; and (3) what others perceive we say or do. 

From my work as an executive coach, including reliance on 360-degree evaluations, I find there are often enormous gaps between these three realities. We don't realize that what we think we said or did is not what we actually said or did. We also don't realize that others' perception often differs from what we think we said or did and what we actually said or did. "What?! Did I really say that?" "What?! That's how they interpreted it?" 

"The Three Realities Gap is so true," said Dustin Dipo, an HR executive in Draper, Utah. "As an HR professional, the more you coach with 360-degree evaluations, the more you realize just how real those reality gaps are." 

The second big reason is the challenge of habit change. People come to our organizations with already formed habits. Some may be beneficial, others not so much. If I've been thinking, acting and responding in a certain way for many years, don't assume I can quickly pivot to a new way of behaving, even if it makes cognitive sense to me. 

For these reasons, when an organization wants to improve its culture and the soft skills of its leaders, training must be supplemented with coaching. Simply organizing another class led by HR is most likely a futile gesture. 

Let's take, for example, the E-A-R listening technique. This technique is simple and can be easily taught. Yet what happens after you leave the training? Let's say you understand and are motivated to adopt this technique. Yet hidden obstacles remain, such as your existing habits and blind spots. They also include a lack of support and reinforcement for the change, as well as ongoing assessment of the results. 

"I thought the E-A-R technique was simple and easy," said Cheryl Harmon, a corporate chief financial officer in Hillsboro, Ore. However, "I learned that simple doesn't necessarily mean easy. I needed coaching to help me get to the point where the technique truly became easy and produced positive results in professional and personal relationships." 

The good news is that workplace cultures can improve and habits can change for the better. (Here's a terrific TED Talk on the topic.) The key is to include the following elements in the training program: 

  1. Conduct some advance 360-degree-type assessment work, including assessing the Three Realities Gap.
  2. Impart the knowledge (the training).
  3. Create safe practice opportunities, including nonintimidating practice sessions and simulations.
  4. Provide just-in-time resources.
  5. Encourage debriefs of actual situations that occur.
  6. Take periodic measurements of progress and make adjustments as needed. 

Cohort Coaching 

I can imagine you saying to yourself, "This sounds great. However, I have 80 people in leadership positions. Are you suggesting I recruit 80 coaches?!" 

Fair point. I acknowledge that 80 coaches for 80 leaders would be a challenge, although the return might still be worth the investment. 

Another way to scale these concepts is what I call "Cohort Coaching." Here are the recommended elements: 

  • Small groups of four or five people, maximum. They can be from the same department or be selected as a mix from throughout the organization.
  • Group membership should not be fluid. You want to build a sense of trust among group members, a willingness to share what concerns them and the ability to be open and even vulnerable. Membership or attendance can't be a revolving door.
  • Schedule a monthly one-hour session where members and the coach interact to address actual situations and challenges that members face.
  • In addition, cohort members should be encouraged to request ad hoc sessions to address JIT challenges or "post-mortems" on situations that just occurred.
  • As cohort members become familiar with the process and develop their skills, they can then be trained to serve as coaches for new cohort groups, thereby scaling the coaching process organizationwide. 

I recommend that every HR professional and organization leader become versed in the fundamentals of both individual and group coaching. Whether or not you decide to become certified by one or more of the various certification organizations isn't critical. Simply focus on learning how good executive coaches function with their clients, and begin adopting and applying elements of their coaching in your work. 

Jathan Janove is a former state bar "Employment Law Attorney of the Year" and author of Hard-Won Wisdom: True Stories from the Management Trenches (HarperCollins/Amacom, 2017). Jathan is Master Coach & Practice Leader with Marshall Goldsmith Stakeholder Centered Coaching®, and faculty member, University of California San Diego HR Masters Series. If you have questions or suggestions for topics for future columns, write to



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