Home > Business Theories, Linguistics > On Soft Skills Coaching

On Soft Skills Coaching

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I’ve recently been sucked into several conversations on whether business English trainers should be retraining as coaches or ‘soft skills experts’. This isn’t a new debate and I’m sure this post won’t end the speculation but there seems to be 2 core issues around this debate:

1. Does Interest in Coaching and Soft Skills represent Client Need or Trainers’ desire to increase their income?

Many people are extremely sceptical about the rush for business English teachers to become coaches and soft skills providers and there is much to the theory that lots of people who choose this option are just experimenting in a rebranding exercise. There has been a lot of debate over the years about what precisely we should call ourselves and how we can best demonstrate what we do to our clients. We all know that most business English courses involve a lot more than language and it’s definitely the case that many courses do cross over into cultural awareness, soft skills and even life coaching in many cases.

I share the frustration of many that we all know that we use a wide range of skills but only get paid for our language competence. It’s also incredibly frustrating that many people who aren’t as good as many of the excellent professionals in our industry get paid considerably more because they have marketed themselves as a soft skills/sales/executive trainer rather than a language professional. However, I have serious concerns over the idea that we should follow our cousins in the soft skills area and attempt to develop a style of coaching that tacks language training onto more general business skills training.

The reasons for this are twofold. Our niche, language training, represents a real need for many of our clients. The problem is not what we do but how we package it. I strongly feel that trying to disguise language development as ‘soft skills training’ not only dilutes our USP as English trainers but also denies the fine tradition of pedagogical development that ELT has gone through. I have had experience of various training approaches including the PGCE and corporate ‘train the trainer’ approaches and the fact is, none of them are as good as the communicative approach we have evolved over the last 40 or so years. What we do is really high quality and we should stop beating ourselves up for how little we get paid and start singing about the myriad fantastic things we do every day in our classrooms.

A second consideration for anyone considering the switch to business coach is the fact that you must take a coaching qualification if you want to be successful and those courses are expensive. Something you should also do is google ‘business coach’ and see how much competition is out there. Is it really sensible to spend a lot of money moving into another saturated market where the successful people have tons of business experience, PhD’s and a track record as long as your arm?  Maybe you should stick with us and help make Business English the credible, professional industry we all want it to be.

But what do we want it to be or:

2. What Core Competencies do Business English Trainers need?

I recently had a conversation with my extremely experienced DOS on why he would always take someone with sound EFL experience over a strong business background to teach in our executive centre. His reasoning was that someone who knows his way around a language point and can manage a classroom has the ability to learn about business and soft skills. Although they’ll never be as good as someone who’s been there and done it, they can be good enough and convince clients they know what they’re talking about. Conversely, someone who comes to language teaching late in life will never have the same grasp of and ability to present language as someone who spent their apprenticeship in a general English class before learning about and specialising in business English. Therefore, they’ll never satisfactorily provide clients with their core need, language development.

The fact is, this ability to explain and manipulate language is the business English teacher’s competitive advantage and, in the rush to up-sell ourselves, we’re forgetting this. Yesterday, I went to an event aimed at helping professionals develop their influencing and persuasion skills. There were lots of conversations about the way people speak and behave in different situations. There also seemed to be confusion about how certain utterances had led to unintended outcomes.

As a linguist, I didn’t fully understand the business situations they were discussing but I could see how the language they were using resulted in negative outcomes. The reason for this is I know not the only the meaning of words and grammar structures but also how they can be inferred in different situations.

This knowledge of discourse, illocutionary force, face and politeness is our competitive advantage. Business coaches often tell people to consider their language but they don’t have the linguistic knowledge to advise people on specific language they might want to use or avoid. We have that knowledge, why aren’t we selling it to our clients?

We’ve had business psychologists and occupational therapists for years but there’s a key competency that’s missing. Pick up any business book and you’ll learn about the primacy of communication but there’s no one analysing the language business people use and advising on what specific elements of communication create conflict and how people can speak to develop relationships.

So, a new title for you, I’m not a coach or a soft skills trainer, I’m a Business Linguist.

So why’s a Business Linguist better than a Business English Teacher?

It’s not really and that’s the point. We all know that business English differs from general English in the language used, specific words, phrases and grammatical structures appear more frequently or in different ways in this genre of communication. But we’ve never taken it any further than that.

If you think about soft skills, all they are is a specific genre of communication. Taking the classic soft skill of feedback as an example, this technique is associated to specific language items that are more frequent when giving feedback than when engaged in normal talk. Furthermore, there are certain items that people good at giving feedback use more frequently than those who are bad at the skill. A classic example is past modals versus future time phrases.

A manager I hated always told me what I should have done and what she would have done if she had been me. In short, she always focused on the mistake and made me feel bad about it. Funnily enough, everyone hated her. Conversely, an inspirational manager I worked for always began feedback by simply stating the problem before saying ‘going forward…’ or ‘next time…’ and then giving practical advice. This language turned the mistake into a learning outcome and thus motivated you to do better next time.

Again, business books are full of this stuff but they never contain the practical language people can use to make a difference because they don’t know how. We, the linguists, know how to do this and are more than capable of building a dossier of effective and ineffective language and providing detailed ‘coaching’ on the language people use and the illocutionary force of such language.

This is a unique skill that business people talk about all the time. They want it but know it’s available. It’s our job to shout about what we do and start delivering in our natural niche.

  1. Christopher Wright
    July 14, 2012 at 5:09 pm

    Hi Ed,

    I agree with avoiding the use of calling ourselves coaches. It’s basically lying.

    And I like the name of business linguist to show clients the value added we bring beyond Gen. Eng teachers.

    However EFL has been so successfull marketing itself in last 50years its difficult for BE to escape from that.

    I still think Business Trainer encapsulates better the different skills we can offer clients.

    Best regards,

    • July 14, 2012 at 5:53 pm

      I know what you’re saying Chris but isn’t business trainer a little close to business coach? What does it actually mean and does it offer the necessary transparency? I see that what we do is equally relevant to native and non native speakers and therefore want to focus on analysing and applying effective language in business rather than ‘teaching English’. As a result, I don’t think business English trainer cuts the mustard either but there has to be some connection to language, hence ‘business linguist’

      Thanks once again for reading and taking the time to reply.


      • Christopher Wright
        July 15, 2012 at 10:45 am


        Your goal to improve the BE profession is admirable.

        This is how I think HR differentiates between options.

        A Business Coach uses a coaching methodology and questions which guides coachees to answers they have within their reach.

        A Business Consultant provides workable answers and solutions to business problems.

        A Business Trainer trains and facilitates to improve trainees performance in skills and competencies.

        And an English teacher teaches grammar and the use of English.

        So where do you think HR puts Business English?

        In an ideal world we could wear multiple hats and clients would pay us differently for each hat we wear.

        However its not like this and in the mind of HR you gain a reputation for one specialty or two if you’re lucky.

        I propose Business Trainer specializing in International Communication and Management Skills delivered in English (lingua franca) for NNS or NS.

        BE has progressed and incorporated best practices so much more than Business Training but sadly not in the mind of the client.

        I will continue to learn more from my PLN in BE than in training and coaching but for clients Ill continue to sell myself and our company as International Business Training.

        This debate is very healthy for the BE profession.


      • July 15, 2012 at 1:12 pm

        Hi Chris,

        Thanks for another insightful, practical comment.

        I think you’re absolutely right to sell international communication and management skills in English. It’s something that clients and HR departments should be able to understand.
        I’m a classroom practitioner and researcher, not a salesman or marketeer so I’ll completely give way to you on how best to approach the client.

        However, we’re not the only people trying to do these things Chris and does the fact that there’s no common methodology help or hinder us in presenting our product to our clients in a more comprehensive, ultimately, higher price package? If we agree that international communication and management skills are the product, what’s included in that and what’s the methodology? We can all innovate our own ways but there still needs to be a certain degree of standardisation doesn’t there?

        Over the coming months, I intend to outline the methodology I think we should be using in English for international management and I’d love to hear your comments on the methodology and how to sell it.

        Thanks again and I look forward to your reply.


  2. Christopher Wright
    July 16, 2012 at 7:03 am

    Hi Ed,

    We also constantly improve our methodology and material based on new research and trial and error with observation and measuring results. Offering a top top service is fundamental for us.

    Don’t dismiss marketing and sales because of negative associations. If you have the best methodology and best teachers/ trainers its a sad waste if nobody knows. You need to do both well if you want to create a Lang. School or Training Company that makes a difference!

    I agree there is no standardization and best practices in terms of methodologies and practitioners – its a case of each company saying they know best.

    Count me in to give you feedback and ideas.

    I also think you need to include ‘English for International Communication’.

    Good job and keep the BE debate moving forward.

    • July 16, 2012 at 8:16 pm

      Hi Chris,

      Thanks again for another great comment. I really sorry if I gave you the impression I was bashing sales and marketing. Far from it, the sales team i a critical part of the business model. what I wanted to make clear is I’m not a marketer and therefore wouldn’t want to make uninformed comments on the important work they do.

      I understand what you’re saying about ‘English for International Communication’ but, at the moment, I’m really unsure as to how important cultural competence is. The more I talk to British business people, I see the same communication challenges face them as many of our non native clients. This often seems to be about interpersonal rather than intercultural issues and often revolves around ‘sloppy language use’ rather than lack of competence.

      Again, this is just my opinion and feel free to disagree.

      Thanks for continuing the debate and I’d sincerely love the feedback.


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