“Translating Soft Skills in the Time of Covid (Part 1)” by Rizwan Oskoui

Life moves quickly. We live in a day and age where everything happens in a blur, our schedules and responsibilities a jumble of multicolored blocks on cell phones. Even in the middle of a pandemic (when we’re supposed to be slowing down) the days seem to end almost as soon as they begin. 

The solution seems simple: practice mindfulness. Focus on the moment, on the space within you and around you, on feelings and thoughts. Simply be aware of the now. Don’t get me wrong, this is great advice for everyone. But what about professionals? How can we be more mindful in our practice? What benefits can our clients, teams, and peers realize from our personal practice of introspection?

I hear you, dear reader. The header says “Part 1.”  And you are thinking, Soft skills translation is a good thing, but really? There are limits to translatable skills. Are you pulling a Charles Dickens?* Indulge me for a moment, as we embark on an adventure to explore some thought-provoking creative thinking. If nothing else, you’ll only lose the duration of time equal to consuming a single cup of coffee.

On the surface, mindfulness doesn’t seem to exist for young, or even more seasoned, professionals. We collect and collate, study and analyze, chasing another set of professional letters or working to satisfy a client need. Who needs professional mindfulness?  It just doesn’t belong in the workplace.

Or does it? What does living in the professional moment mean, or even look like?

Imagine, if you will, a completely empty room. No windows, artwork, furniture, or obvious doors. The floor is a front-runner for “world’s plainest laminate pattern of the decade,” and all you have is a yoga mat. Which, coincidentally, is a serious contender for the “world’s most uninteresting item of the year.” The entire moment consists of you and your client right now, suspended in animation. The moment you appeared in this room, every other thought, every other project, every other risk or variable disappeared. Every strategic shift, every process, every memo flagging the rollout of a new policy has been frozen in time.

Creating and inhabiting this space allows you to determine what the client truly needs. Right here, right now. Ask a question to the universe and it will whisper back that the answer lies here. If you’re a technical consultant, this is a perfect place to confirm that your minimal viable product truly is just that. Does your solution meet the gap, with no additional bells and whistles, at this very moment? If you operate in the realms of process and business improvement, channel your inner Tony Stark (or Pepper Potts) to note any knowledge transfer gaps, process inefficiencies, missing documentation, or overlooked stakeholders that might exist in the confines of this room. Sounds simple enough, right?

Congratulations, you’ve just discovered professional mindfulness. The ability to do this exercise strategically is the mental equivalent of cleaning your desk. The reality of our professional lives is that our client marches forward at an inexorable pace. And while parts of the organization may slow down, it’s never still enough to put a stake in the ground. The practice of meditation that allows us to center ourselves in our personal lives is equally applicable to finding clarity in the occupational jungle. With one simple exercise you can place yourself in a position to truly understand your client without the distractions of the everyday workplace.

Now take a deep breath and look just past the walls of this room. Not sure what you’re looking at? It’s the very next step in your client’s processes, the familiar everyday rhythm of your client workspace. More importantly, it’s likely the next stop in the road your client travels – and the very next concern you may face. In situations where information is lacking, and understanding what you don’t know is key to understanding the client landscape and addressing risks, you’ve just gained a key insight. If you developed a solution, it needs to connect to the next process, just beyond your line of sight. If you noted a gap, identified an inefficiency, or a missing piece of the puzzle, that “just around the bend” moment could be an opportune point to introduce your findings to the client.

Let’s swing to the other end of the spectrum. Project managers are well versed in identifying risks; in fact one of the most basic documents you learn to create is a risk register. When you create this document, you’re identifying the most obvious risks and opportunities, and determining the most appropriate response. In the hustle and bustle of the workday, you seize a moment to stop and study the world in a frame. Take that instant to note any additional risks which may lay under the surface. This is a great place to identify other potential communication gaps and underlying risks. It’s entirely possible that these ‘secondary’ risks are nominal, but what if you could uncover an unforeseen opportunity through addressing just one of these newly identified risks?

Clients move fast. Projects move fast. Work, no matter what field you work in, moves fast.  But take a moment to explore how much more powerful you can be as a consultant by practicing professional mindfulness. It’s the difference between good and magical.

Stop. Look around. Trust in your comprehension of the space and your ability to support your client. As U2 says, “It’s a beautiful day.”

*Footnote: It’s a common misconception that Dickens’ works are so long because he was paid by the word. In fact, he was paid by the installment. Serial novels were a common method of bringing literature to the masses in 19th century England. In 21st century America, this is how we save you from a very long article.