Can You Actually Learn Soft Skills Online?

Soft skills are becoming increasingly popular and more and more people are wanting to learn soft skills online. But soft skills are about behavior, personality, and human interactions—so, can they actually be learned online? See how, with proper course design, they can.

A recent Washington Post article revealed something interesting about hiring practices at Google—Google prefers soft skills.

Not hard skills, like science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

A study in 2013 found that hard skills ranked last among the qualities considered important for Google’s top employees. Soft skills, such as communicating, listening, and empathy, were top of the list.

This is surprising for Google—a company founded by computer scientists and squarely positioned in the technology space.

But it reflects the increasing attention on soft skills in the workplace, and the increasing demand for soft skills training as a result.

But how easy is it to learn soft skills?

Do skills like listening, communicating and empathy need a different training approach to hard skills?

And can soft skills actually be learned online?

Soft skills are different

According to Epignosis, a global training organization, soft skills allow companies to adapt, innovate, collaborate and deliver superior customer service.

Research conducted by the Stanford Research Institute also found that 75% of long-term job success depends on soft skills and only 25% on technical knowledge.

What’s more, a Rutgers University study found that leaders with better emotional intelligence, a broad proxy for soft skills, delivered 139 percent higher profits and improved customer satisfaction.

It’s not surprising, then, that companies are looking to improve their employees’ soft skills.

Soft skills are difficult to teach

Soft skills are difficult to measure and are more behavioral than hard skills. They are therefore more difficult to teach.

A recent Fortune article points out that while soft skills training can be effective, it’s difficult to assess progress and there’s no standard approach for doing so. It’s usually measured subjectively, through feedback from workplace colleagues.

What sets soft skills training apart, however, is that they’re about changing behavior rather than merely accumulating knowledge.

And it’s not easy to change people’s personalities through training, says Anne Fisher in a Fortune article. Many people are resistant to new experiences or have poor social skills, and this can get in the way of changing behavior.

There are ways to teach soft skills

Nevertheless, some people consider soft skills to be highly trainable due to their flexibility compared with more static traits such as a person’s IQ.

In a recent Forbes article, Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, a Professor of Business Psychology at University College London, explained that soft skills training can be successful when a focused approach is used.

Teamwork, collaboration, empathy, and compassion have all been shown to improve with the right kind of training. “When it comes to deliberate attempts to enhance people’s soft skills”, says Chamorro-Premuzic, “the glass is at least half full”.

What matters most for soft skills training

People’s behavior can change, says Heide Abelli, senior vice president at Skillsoft, a global training firm. She believes that for soft skills training to be effective, it needs to include three key elements—learning, introspection, and practice.

These elements are powerful and can make a real difference, even for personalities resistant to change, says Abelli. “True, someone may never be a rockstar at a particular skill, but they can get competent at it”.

You can learn soft skills online for free from leading institutions

Applying learning, introspection, and practice

The ‘learning‘ of soft skills training is the most straightforward of Abelli’s three elements. It draws on cognitive techniques that are commonly used for hard skills training.

The ‘introspection‘ and ‘practice‘ elements require more effort.

To see how introspection works, Abelli asks you to imagine you’re a person who didn’t like sharing your toys when you were young. This may simply be a part of your personality. “But this is where introspection is crucial”, says Abelli. “Reflect on it, and ask yourself why you’re now allowing it to get in your way”.

This approach can help to identify psychological barriers and help with improving soft skills.

To explain how practice can work for soft skills training, Jeremy Auger, chief strategy officer at training company D2L, compares it to learning chess.

You can read books about the rules, memorize different strategies, and so on” says Auger, “but the only way you really learn the game is by playing over and over again”.

Soft skills need repeated practice, even more so than hard skills, to change behaviors that may be deeply ingrained in a person’s psyche.

Teaching soft skills online

How do you teach soft skills online?

Stephen Meyer, CEO of the Rapid Learning Institute, has some suggestions.

Meyer explains that online learning has evolved since the clunky ‘computer-based training’ days of the 1980s. Advances in computing power and internet speed allow multimedia experiences that are more immersive than ever before.

What’s more, the digital age has changed the way we consume information. No longer are we limited to books or lectures, which follow a predictable, logical sequence.

Meyer describes a study that found young people today tend to skip around when viewing a web page. They don’t proceed from left to right and top to bottom. Rather, they scan for content. They look for information in short, disjointed, overlapping bursts.

Online learning embraces these modern patterns of nonlinear consumption, making full use of multimedia and interactive tools. Online learning is therefore more engaging for modern learners than traditional learning methods.

Soft skills training—Ingredients for success

Meyer describes two key design approaches for soft skills training that he says are essential for success. They can also take full advantage of online delivery:

1. Rapid learning

People prefer bite-sized modules of information.

Such modules are versatile, easy to digest, and good for short attention spans.

Companies have shown that learning designed around this principle is easier to teach.

Meyer suggests that short, focused learning modules can be transformational in their ability to train soft skills.

2. Single concept learning

Single concept learning is the approach featured in Malcolm Gladwell’s best-selling book Blink.

Based on the concept of thin-slicing, single concept learning delivers narrow learning insights through focused learning modules. These deliver a powerful impact according to Meyer.

Our brains are wired to intuitively draw conclusions from narrow windows of experience, rather than suffer from the cognitive overload of multi-concept approaches. Single concept learning exploits this feature of our neurology.

These design approaches are well suited for online delivery. They also promote the three elements of effective soft skills training described by Abelli.

The clear intuition provided by single concept learning and the ease and versatility of rapid learning directly support introspection and practice.

Moreover, the immersive and engaging experience of online learning can make it more rewarding than traditional learning approaches.


Learning soft skills online is challenging, but with the right approach, it can be successful. The online environment offers an engaging, flexible, and productive experience for learners of soft skills.

Online soft skills courses require careful design attention to be effective. Design elements like rapid and single concept learning can help to encourage introspection and practice in learners. This boosts the effectiveness, enjoyment, and success of learning soft skills online.

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