You may have seen the testimony of Raelene Ellis at the Royal Commission in to Aged Care Quality and Safety.

Raelene’s mother has experienced the aged care system from one end to the other, with Raelene as her main support.

At one point, Raelene spoke about the struggle to accept that her mother needed residential care.

Through tears she described her head being ready but that her heart was not.

Our emotions, and even deeper, our sense of self, our identity, does not move at the same pace as rational thought.

That deep part of ourselves needs a good process, often with a good companion and a meaningful ritual, to help us move through the challenges of formation and re-formation that are part of being human.

The delicate work of offering someone the right kind of companionship and the right kind of process at the right time as they seek to move through life’s challenges and other big moments have been called by some “soft skills”.

We name them good spiritual care.

Calling these vital human moments “soft” suggests to me that they are easy or in some way insubstantial.

There is a reason that the Royal Commission keeps hearing about lack of empathy, the need for love and the need for a humane process. So-called soft skills are substantial.

They are just as valuable and arguably on par with dealing with financial models, for example. The numbers on the page won’t do unpredictable things, or need to tell you their life story, or start crying, or search for meaning.

So-called soft skills also seem the most susceptible to their environment – if the system of care does not promote or support them, they are squashed despite the best intentions of staff.

As Australian social researcher Hugh Mackay commented on ABC radio*, there is no virtue in compassion if you are only kind to those you like.

So let’s stop calling these complex, demanding skills “soft” and instead own them as the essential and at times difficult skills of human relationship.

If you catch yourself or other leaders calling them “soft” I challenge you to call it out.

Let me know how you get on!

* Hugh Mackay talking to Geraldine Doogue on ABC RN Saturday Extra 23 March 2019

A version of this piece was originally published in the Meaningful Ageing Australia March 2019 Newsletter.

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