Since I’ve worked in the fields of adult education, workforce development, and now development coaching I’ve spent considerable time talking with adults about their perceptions of the skills they believe they either do or do not have. Through hundreds of discussions with adult students and coaching clients two things became clear. One, when talking about skills most people will tend to describe personal attributes or the tasks they perform rather than skills. Two, most people have trouble identifying the skills they use to accomplish the tasks that they perform. This is particularly true for tasks that they are very familiar with or do regularly such as their day to day responsibility on the job. They are good at telling you the tasks that make up their job responsibilities but not at what skills make it possible for them to do those tasks. This is usually because they don’t tend to think in terms of skills but in terms of tasks. This is understandable when you consider that many I not most job postings or want ads describe the position in terms of the tasks performed and not the skills needed to do those tasks.
Introducing Skills Identification
The exercise I use to introduce the concept of skills identification and transferable skills is a simple one. We talk about doing the laundry, a simple household task that almost everyone has performed at one time or another. This conversation provides us a basis for discussing tasks, assessing the skills involved in these tasks, and looking at how these skills can be “transferred” and used to perform other tasks.
The conversation usually goes something like this.
Coach: “Do you do laundry at home?”
Coach: “Do you do laundry at home?”
Client: “Why are you asking me that?
Coach: “Trust me on this. Tell me how you do the laundry.”
Client: “ OK. Well first I …”
Then an explanation of how they go about doing the task begins. While there are similarities for everyone in the way they do laundry there are also differences in the way they go about the task. The details of how the client does the laundry are not that important. What is important is getting the client to give the coach a complete process from beginning to end. Odds are that since it is a familiar task they will tend to gloss over the details of the overall task and leave out some steps. The coach needs to use his questioning skills to make sure that no steps are left out and the details are filled in.
The basic steps you will hear described are sorting; filling in the washer; putting in the soap; placing them in the drier; folding them.
Once the client finishes describing the process they use in doing the laundry the questioning concerning skills can begin in earnest.
Often the client will begin with the process of sorting the laundry. Depending how in-depth the description of the task by the client is the coach can begin the drill down for details that will show how involved the task actually is and how steps can be over looked, ask some or all of the following:
- How do you know what clothes go into what piles?
(answer is usually color or label)
2. How you determine what temperature water to use?
(answer is usually connected to color or type of material)
3. How do you know how much soap to put in?
(answer is usually a capful for liquid detergent or a scoop for powder)
4. Do you use the same amount of soap for each load?
(answer is usually “no”)
5. How do you know how much soap to use?
(answer usually I guess; sometimes read the label)
6. When you dry the clothes do you dry everything at the same temperature for the same length of time.
(answer usually no, some things like jeans and towels take longer, others don’t take as long; some things I don’t put into the drier)
7. How do you determine what goes into the drier and what doesn’t?
(answer my mom taught me, I just know, I read the label)
After getting the client to elaborate on their process and what is involved in the steps I ask the following. “Now that you have described to me how you do laundry what did you just describe to me tasks or skills?” Usually the client knows it was tasks and not skills that they described.
The next thing I ask is this: “Now describe to me the skills that you used at each step in doing laundry.”
This usually gives them pause. The client usually has a more difficult time trying to identify the specific skills used in the tasks. It may be because the client is not used to thinking in terms of skills or it may be because the client is so familiar with the task they can do it automatically without much thought. If it is the second reason they may have difficulty identifying the skills used in the tasks they perform at work for the same reason. Often the average individual will be able to come up with one or two skills involved in the tasks, individuals with a better idea of what skills are will be able to name a few more.
If the client has difficulty identifying the skills they used I’ll help them with the identification by prompting them a little. This is where it is imperative for the coach needs to have a good command of skills and skills sets. The skills usually identified are critical thinking, decision making, reading for information, reading to locate information; basic math fractions; estimating; and hand eye coordination.
Once this exercise is completed I assign the client some homework that consists of them listing and then reflecting about the tasks they do on the job. Then I have them work at identifying and listing the skills involved in doing those tasks.
By working through a familiar task, (the laundry) and identifying the skills involved in those tasks many clients find it easier to use that thinking in identifying the skills they possess and use at work. Once the individual can identify their skills we can begin the work of helping them to develop insight on how their skills can transfer from one job or one task to another and then be applied to any number of tasks.
One practical application of this new realization about their skills comes in the interview process. Where, in the past, they may have struggled to “connect the dots” for the interviewer between their skills and the task of the job, now they can use that knowledge to help explain how they will be able to perform tasks on the job in a position that they may have not held previously.