How Virtual Reality Will Change Soft Skills Training


2017 was the year of the Silence Breakers. Will 2018 be the year immersive technologies help tackle harassment culture?

Soft skills are “people skills”. They also go by many other names such as 21st Century skills, and socio-emotional skills. Yet regardless of how they are labelled, these skills essentially involve understanding oneself and relating to others by showing empathy, embracing diversity and abandoning unconscious biases. They can be trained, but current approaches are ineffective.

An individual with strong soft skills can be an effective collaborator, leader, and good citizen. They not only know what behaviors are appropriate, and how to identify them, but also how to generate those behaviors, and do so in a highly effective manner.

While the “Silence Breakers” and #metoo movement make glaringly clear that effective soft skills training is seriously lacking in the workplace (and in society in general) a completely independent movement toward more artificial intelligence (AI) in the workplace has led many in the C-suite to suggest that soft skills are going to become increasingly important.

This leads me to predict that next year will see a spike in commercial offerings in soft skills training, focusing more on the science of learning during product development. This trend has already begun, and immersive technologies such as VR are at the forefront of that.

Science provides answers to difficult questions and drives innovation and success in the commercial sector. As applied to soft skills training in general — and sexual harassment awareness training in particular — psychological science suggests that two aspects are key to effective soft skills training.

First, change occurs when the learner’s behavior is followed in real-time, literally within 100s of milliseconds, by feedback that rewards correct behaviors and punishes incorrect behaviors. Thus, it follows that training scenarios must be interactive.

Second, soft skills behavior change can be facilitated through first-person immersion in which you “walk a mile in someone else’s shoes”. There is nothing quite like allowing a middle-aged, heterosexual, Caucasian male to live the life, even for a few minutes, of a young female or member of the LGBTQIA community being harassed or disrespected, to help them understand the negativity associated with this experience.

The problem with most current soft skills training is that it involves reading a text, viewing slide shows and watching videos of appropriate and inappropriate interpersonal interactions. These approaches teach us the “what” — the definition of harassment, empathy, diversity and unconscious bias, as well as how to classify behaviors. What they do not teach, however, is “how” to exhibit the appropriate behaviors. As anyone who has ever tried to change their own behavior knows, it is much easier to know “what” to do, than learning behaviorally “how” to do it. Why is this the case? The science and brain basis of learning provides the answer.

The human brain has evolved two distinct learning systems. One is the cognitive skills system in the brain which learns the “what” through passive observation, studying and mental repetition. The other is the behavioral skills learning system in the brain which learns the “how”.

In terms of soft skills, the latter involves such behaviors as showing empathy, embracing diversity (eye contact, attentiveness), being respectful. Although the detailed neurochemistry is beyond the scope of this article, suffice it to say that such behavioral skills are learned gradually and incrementally via dopamine-mediated, error-correction learning in the basal ganglia of the brain.

When a behavior is rewarded (via a smiling face or a head nod for example) the neural connections that led to that are strengthened so is more likely to happen again. When a behavior is generated that is punished (via an angry face or a shaking head) the neural connections that led to that outcome are weakened and hence less likely to happen again. Learning in the behavioral skills system in the brain is active, which involves learning by doing, and physical repetitions.

One approach that brain science suggests should be highly effective for enhancing empathy and understanding another person’s perspective is to immerse the learner in another person’s life — to “walk a mile in their shoes”. It targets emotional processing centres in the brain and helps the learner understand at a visceral level what it is like to be in a position of weakness, and to be the direct target of harassment, prejudice or bias.

First-person immersive VR would, therefore, be relevant and effective for training employees in all commercial sectors, in particular, customer service representatives or medical personnel who routinely interact with others who are in some form of distress.

Although passive, observational, first-person immersive VR experiences offer a great tool for enhancing empathy and understanding, and likely can prime the learner for behavior change, actual change requires interactivity. Training platforms must, therefore, incorporate realistic interpersonal interaction and real-time communication into the mix.

The learner can be placed in situations in which they must interact with an individual who is poor in soft skills, or placed in situations in which their behavior is responded to in a negative manner. In other words, then can learn how to affect change in another, or affect change in themselves.

Interactive VR platforms are ideal for such soft skills behavior training because the learner is fully immersed in the situation. They have the feeling of presence. In addition, if the platform is constructed appropriately, the learner can be placed in a broad range of situations and scenarios that include small or large numbers of bystanders, a broad or narrow array of ethnicities and genders, etc.

Yet regardless of the platform, whether VR or computer-based, the key is to target the behavioral skills learning system with realistic interpersonal interactions and real-time communication, and change will follow.

It is one thing to know what you should do when you interact with others, it is another to know how to behave when doing so. The science indicates that the use of VR in soft skills training has great potential for effecting positive behavioral change. Deploying immersive technologies more widely in the training industry could, therefore, help reduce incidences of harassment, increase empathy, help people understand and embrace diversity, and increase awareness of unconscious biases. The result will be a more harmonious, effective and satisfied workforce, happier customers and clients, and a kinder society. Who wouldn’t see value in that?



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