A Better Term Than Soft Skills

What if we found better terms than “soft skills” and “hard skills” to discuss the things we do as judges?

If you haven’t heard those terms before, ‘soft skills’ is a term that judges often use to describe those skills that we can’t objectively measure. (Credit to Logistics Champion Jonah for the definition.) In practice, it often is used to describe everything outside of rules and policy. 

The term ‘soft skills’ can sound judgemental, indicating that these skills are important, but not as vital nor as difficult, as the ‘hard skills’ of learning the CR, JAR, and IPG. Happily, I think many people have moved past that. I often see applications for conferences that will focus on soft skills of one kind or another. I’m still not wild about the term though. It still feels like it creates a hierarchy of skills. More importantly, I think there’s a much more helpful, and accurate, way to separate out the different things we judges teach and learn. What if we talked about judge skills as being correct answers vs. best practices?

If I ask you to tell me how Blood Moon and Urborg interact, there is one single answer that we know to be correct. The rules about layers and dependencies are always the same. No matter where in the world we are, or what level of rules enforcement we are at, or the particular learning styles of the players involved, there is always one correct answer. 

But what if I ask you to tell me the best way to explain that rule to a new player? What if I ask you how to handle a player who is upset about your ruling, or how to find time to explain layers to a player while you’re running a large event by yourself? Those questions are just as vital to being a judge as the rules knowledge is, yet we won’t find exact answers for them in any of our rules documents. Ask those questions of 3 different judges and they may give different answers. (Though at least one of them will probably tell you their answer is objectively right after all!)

So correct answers refers to things like layers, or the meaning of Hidden Card Error, or the amount of life a two-headed giant team starts with- questions where we can find a single correct answer. Best practices on the other hand are questions where different people in different situations may answer the question in different ways, without either of them being wrong. The difference might be one of personal preference, such as how to sort a deck for a deck check. The difference might be a cultural one. I learned quickly that the speaking methods I used for opening announcements in one part of the country had to change when I moved to a different one. What works for one of us may not work for another, and so each judge has to find their own best practice. Even after we find our best practice for one situation, we then judge in a different context and need to adjust. 

As community champion, one of the areas I care most about is how we teach each other how to be better judges. So for me, the difference here isn’t just semantics, it is about how we approach teaching and learning. If we start by recognizing the kind of knowledge that we are trying to teach, it can, and should, inform the way we teach it.

Go back to that question about Blood Moon (can you tell I really struggled to learn layers?) If your goal was to teach someone to understand layers, how might you go about it? A written article with well laid out examples might work. You might give a presentation with a powerpoint and time for questions, or walk people through a number of examples. The teaching method may impact how well you get the point across, but in the end, you’re teaching a set of correct answers, and the focus of your method should be making sure the learners understand those correct answers, and the framework in which they fit. Your particular perspective is often less important than the answers themselves. 

But now take questions about best practices. Many of us (myself included!) may sometimes think we have figured out the best way to do something, but in reality, teaching everyone to do things our way isn’t going to be the most helpful. Instead, the goal should be to help someone else understand different methods and why they work in different settings, so they can find what works best for them. If I give a 50 minute presentation about how I handle conflict it will likely be helpful to other people who approach things from a similar perspective to mine, but may be less helpful to others.

Instead of teaching someone my best practices, I’d rather create spaces where people can consider different best practices, and what would or wouldn’t work in one situation or another. Instead of a presentation, I could lead a guided discussion, and invite comments and perspectives from those in attendance. I could host a panel discussion, and now attendees can hear a wide range of perspectives, and use what they learn to help decide what works best for them. I could create a series of roleplays where attendees can take a shot at handling a difficult situation, and then discuss what did and didn’t work with their mentors and peers.

Now, the reality is that not all judge skills will fall neatly into one of these two categories. (Ask a few judges what they think is the best way to make a tape loop, and then let Judge Academy Logistics Coordinator Jonah Kellman tell you why they are wrong.) But if we approach learning opportunities in everything from informal mentorship to local judge classes to large scale judge conferences by first asking whether we want to focus on correct answers, best practices, or both, I think it can help us focus on what we want to teach, and how best to do so.


If this is a topic you’re passionate about, be sure to join in our conversations daily over on the Judge Academy Discord!