the challenge of ‘soft’

Six months into this eighteen month Deans’ Seminar process, I’ve had the opportunity to engage in a wide range of activities: workshops led by external experts, grassroots student-focused ‘happenings’, and facilitated discussions amongst faculty from across the Institute, to name just a few.

graphic: poster for event

poster by mjennings

While each of these events has had its own unique character, one consistent theme that has emerged for me across them all is the role of the ‘soft’. Those elusive ‘you know it when you see it’ characteristics, sometimes perceived to be extra, ephemeral, ‘not our job’, even ‘weak’ attributes that — over and over — various groups have articulated to be at the core of something very, very important.

Students and alumni called this out after perusing the thoughtful, in-depth, and at times provocative stories of seasoned development professionals reflecting back on their twenty or more years of service in the field.  What is it, exactly, that differentiates a  truly transformative professional from one who is merely competent?

“These people are saying this stuff really matters … so why aren’t we addressing this more directly in our coursework?”

photo of faculty poster

poster by T+I faculty

When thirty or more faculty gathered in mid-December to collaboratively generate their conceptions of the ‘Ideal Practitioners’ that each program was ultimately hoping to have as graduates, the outcomes were similar.  A significant percentage of those desired outcomes went beyond core subject-matter expertise and essential ‘hard’ skills:

open-minded, resilient professional, able to read ‘reality’
confident yet humble, collegial community builders
able to convince stakeholders of needs,
both known & unknown

Download / view the full set of faculty posters, by program (PDF).

2x2 grid as 3D navigable model - by sspringer

graphic by sspringer

And when Mary Brydon-Miller guided a cross-section of students, alumni, faculty and staff through a full-day exploration of power and privilege, these ideas were present as well.  Standing — literally taking a stand — within a 2×2 grid on the floor, we explored our assumptions, perceptions, biases and proclivities around the axes of optimism, pessimism, power, and self-efficacy.

~ identifying others as ‘powerful pessimists’ or ‘Powdermilk Biscuit gang’
~ the power of acknowledging when one can’t ‘do it all’
~ the role of trust, letting go and tensions associated with relying on a ‘higher power’
~ equating optimism with unaware, ‘not critical’
~ learning to choose between sarcastic, cynical, and ironic
~ is a sense of self-efficacy — the will to take action — at the heart of social change?

These debates are, of course, not new.  What intrigues me is how the stories of this community, our MIIS community — from multiple perspectives — brings these to light, engages and grapples with them.

  • How do we integrate, instill, certify (?), raise awareness of, mentor and develop, and ultimately embody these practices and dynamics ourselves?
  • Of the many ‘soft’ skill areas that exist, which rank highest in your own particular professional and personal worlds?
workshop framing diagram by kglenzer

workshop framing diagram by kglenzer

Your Stories

If you participated in any of our events to date, and this rings true, please share an instance of how this struck you (quote, story, example) in the comments below.  And whether you’ve joined us in person so far or not, what examples do you have of seeing this at play with alumni and in your own professional life? What characteristics differentiate our truly adept alumni from their peers and other professionals?  When, specifically, have you seen ‘soft’ play a key role in moving the needle in concrete and lasting ways?

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3 thoughts on “the challenge of ‘soft’

  1. Two quotes from Mary’s workshop that I never found a place for:
    “the energy that it takes to respond to power is often invisibilized”
    “empathy is exhausting; you can only really do it, energy-wise, for a select few people”


  2. Another thought to add: In yesterday’s presentation by visiting scholar Randy Carlock the topic of hard ‘versus’ soft came up again, in a slightly different format, during the discussion. I am curious about the idea that these be placed in opposition to one another, as an either/or choice. When I wrote above that “a significant percentage of those desired outcomes went beyond core subject-matter expertise and essential ‘hard’ skills …) I recognize now that my choice of the word ‘beyond’ reflects my assumption that a strong disciplinary base remains both essential and non-negotiable.

    The conversation then touched ever so briefly on an interesting question of developmental stages and timing: must students first be trained in core critical thinking skills (and the ‘technical’ of Carlock’s triumvirate) before we can then add in the social and self-awareness and psychological dimensions?


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