Strong Soft

Last year I got together with a group of colleagues and friends from outside of teaching to try and establish what the most important non-cognitive skills for our students were. We began by all privately making a list of the things we thought had been influential in determining our own success. Most responses were expected – resilience, curiosity, etc. But there was one thing that came up in all of our lists, which none of us had heard or read about before.

I described it as “the ability to assertively but politely disagree”. As a group we struggled for a good name. Then someone proposed we call it “strong soft”.

Strong soft is the skill of making a point both strongly and softly enough to be heard. Too strong and you’re written off as rude. Too soft and you’re ignored. Strong soft gets the balance right.

And I think it’s the most important skill we don’t teach at school.

Think of the rhetoric schools use when students, who don’t know any better, try to argue about a behaviour consequence or other instruction they think is unfair.

“Keep quiet”
“Don’t answer back”
“Don’t argue”

We’re telling them to keep it zipped and say nothing, but just to accept potential injustice.

The problem is that’s not what we actually mean! What we mean is something more like “I understand you think that this is unfair, and I’m more than happy to explain my decision-making to you and hear your view, but we’ll have to do that at a more appropriate time because right now I’m teaching and you’re learning”. But that just doesn’t roll off the tongue. The consequence of this is that we’re accidentally teaching students that they never have the right to complain or challenge authority, and unsurprisingly this is a teaching they often rebel against.

Instead of teaching this, we need to teach them strong soft. They need to learn how to challenge authority, but in a polite and appropriate manner. If they get into a habit of this at school, then (a) we have less disruption to learning, and (b) our students will be more successful adults, who don’t get taken for a ride but do get respected by their peers.

Here are the three components of strong soft to build into our students’ habits.

Choose a winning time
When the other person isn’t busy with an immediately pressing task, and generally when there’s no audience. If you challenge someone when they’re doing something more important then you’ll simply be ignored. If you do it in front of others then they won’t back down. Strong soft chooses a winning time, when the case will be heard and will get a fair hearing.

Choose a strong reason
The strength comes from clarity. Put your problem into one sentence. Clearly stating the issue and staying on topic forces the other person to respond directly to your point, and ensures the most important thing gets listened to.

Choose a soft tone
Too strong a tone makes you seem rude, and rude people have their arguments ignored. Instead of listening to your point, the listener concentrates on your tone and how it makes them feel. Instead, choose a calm and soft tone that works hard to be as polite as possible. This will impress your listener.

Strong soft comes down to: time, reason and tone. Strength comes from the reason, softness from the tone. If we train students in using strong soft when they need to question or challenge, we will significantly reduce the amount of disruption to lessons, and the trouble they get into. We’ll also be setting them up with the habits they need for adulthood.

Build strong soft into a habit by using the time, reason and tone mantra for the habit routine. Sentence starters like “This feels unfair to me becauseā€¦” will also make the routine easier. The reward is being listened to – for many students often the first time they have been listened to when challenging authority.

It’s been missing for too long
During the holidays I was talking to a group of Year 11 boys during a break from revision. They were complaining that if a teacher upsets them then they get told to sit there and keep quiet. Surely this is hypocritical – the teachers can’t just sit there and take it if their boss does something unfair to them? Teachers write in the newspapers and go on strike, so why do they tell students to never question authority?

This was a lightbulb moment for me. They just didn’t get strong soft. They’d never seen it modelled by adults around them, and so didn’t understand how to politely disagree. We spent 10 minutes discussing how to challenge authority in a professional manner that gets you listened to, and they lapped up every word.

Strong soft is the most important skill we don’t teach at school. Right time, strong reasons, soft tone.

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