Can You Learn “People Skills” Like You Learn To Swim?

Can you learn “people skills” in the same way you learn to swim, or to play an instrument?

As a trainer, I dream of creating something like the Swimsmooth Guru.
Just keep turning up to the pool twice a week, follow the session plans provided, and you’ll become a better, faster swimmer. I achieved an unbelievable 8 min 16 sec 400m this week. The Guru is an awesome piece of work, reducing a complicated process to a simple, step-by-step formula. And it works.

A big question in my mind at the moment, though, is whether the kind of things I teach can fit this pattern.

We can start with someone’s decent model of the thing to be taught, which will make the complex fairly simple. For example, if I’m teaching people to run an online community, I can use the models in Richard Millington’s Buzzing Communities. “If your community is at this stage in its lifecycle, do this.”

If I’m teaching Clean Language, I can teach the questions, how to spot metaphors and so on, based on models from Penny Tompkins and James Lawley.

But in both cases, students’ results tend to vary! It’s not enough just to learn to do the stuff in a workshop: it’s not until the rubber hits the road and you are out there in the real world, dealing with real people, that the real learning starts.

It’s essential to get wet to learn to swim, so that you get real feedback. It’s by doing it that you discover what makes you sink, what makes you go faster, what makes you more or less tired and so on.

So, in my online classes, whether recorded or live, I insist that students must practice with real humans in between classes. When they do, it massively increases their learning. I notice that several of my “best” students are musicians: my suspicion is that they’ve internalised the idea that continual practice is essential when learning a new skill.

And… swimming pools the world over fit a fairly standard format, while human beings are all different. That’s what makes the whole thing interesting.

Is it reasonable to put together a set of training drills and expect people to follow them? Do other people-skills trainers do this, and with what degree of success?

I’d love to hear your ideas – please comment below.


  • Susie


    Hi Judy,
    I think this is such an interesting inquiry! All the best stuff I’ve read about learning processes – like “Genius is Overrated” talk not only about practice but about mentored practice because you could be practicing until you’re blue in the face but if you’re not getting real time feedback from someone who is an expert at what you’re trying to learn, you may just be reinforcing your bad habits and never improve. It sounds like in your courses, people are getting that kind of feedback.

  • Julie


    I agree Susie – a very interesting topic.

    I imagine that musicians practice independently from their mentors/teachers but meet with them regularly to have their performance observed and to receive feedback and this helps to ensure that bad habits are not embedded. I say ‘imagine’ because I do not know many accomplished musicians, so my actual knowledge is limited.

    I have mixed however with many top athletes and know that they tend to be people who have developed habits of consistent and regular practice and taking account of feedback (which is informed by observations mainly by their coaches but also themselves and others), which informs future practice. This applies to skills, strength and stamina development. Observations of exemplars also feeds into the feedback loop. What I have noticed with this group of people is they welcome feedback as it helps them to improve – they don’t shy away from it because they know there is gold in it. Competition provides the acid test (I’m seeing it as ‘getting wet to learn to swim’ or ‘practising with real humans in between classes’) and is a source of invaluable feedback – you can see and hear instant post competition feedback in the post race interviews on TV and later athlete and coach will analyse the performance and adjust their action plans as they see fit.

    There does appear to me (on the face of it) to be a general pattern across the three areas: Input with mentor/expert – practise/observation with mentor expert – practice independently ‘in the field’ – observation and feedback with expert to inform next steps (i.e. further ‘adjusted’ practice to or move onto something new) – take next steps.

    You do this very well Judy. I believe that honing what you do, in order to automate it, will probably consist of modelling (perhaps minutely) what you already do, which will highlight the commonalities (for automation) and the idiosyncrasies (for ‘mentor/expert’ observations and feedback).

    Very interested to follow your progress on this.


  • Greg Turner


    Interesting questions that I am also asking of myself with respect to my hypnotherapy practice. I’m afraid I have no answers to share. I think it was Igor Ledochowski who said that practice does not make perfect; perfect practice makes perfect. So, how can one tell if he is perfectly practicing? I have seen online courses offered that include online real time interaction with a mentor who observes and comments on one’s practice. Perhaps that is a partial solution.

  • Jon Thorne


    It is my experience that those that blindly seek to practice an approach laid down by others may well be good at following the path. Those of us who are good at practicing the skills to find our own way… tend to pick and choose what they need to learn from the paths others have laid down before them… and find our way to amazing places…

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