“She’s a people person.” You’ve heard a colleague, manager, friend or relative described that way and you know exactly what it means. This person eases through the workday like a soft summer breeze, feathers rarely ruffled, hackles seldom raised.
13 Essential Interpersonal Skills
- Active Listening
- Emotional Intelligence
- Relational Intelligence
- Decision Making
- Objective Effectiveness
- Problem Solving
- Conflict Resolution
What’s their secret? Finely developed and assiduously deployed interpersonal skills. “Interpersonal skills are often referred to as ‘people skills’ or ‘social skills,’” said Roberta Matuson, president of Matuson Consulting and author of Can We Talk? Seven Principles for Managing Difficult Conversations at Work.
What Are Interpersonal Skills?
“In a nutshell, interpersonal skills are the skills that help us work well with others,” said John Waldmann, CEO and founder of Homebase, a San Francisco, California-based company that makes a time-tracking and employee scheduling app. “They’re the competencies we use to communicate, solve problems, be a part of a team, and move people and projects forward,” Waldmann said.
“Developing your interpersonal skills, while it may seem touchy-feely, can be an important aspect of your career growth into leadership and roles with a greater scope of responsibility.” - Patrick Hayes, chief strategy officer, UncommonX, Chicago
Interpersonal skills come naturally to some people, but they can be developed and improved with time, experience and even training programs, Waldmann said. In the early days of Homebase, he said he found it “uncomfortable” to pitch the business. “But the more I practiced, the better I got,” he said. “Without taking the chance on developing those skills — communication, curiosity, empathy, adaptability and a lot of perseverance — Homebase wouldn’t be where it is today.”
Interpersonal skills work together as a package. It’s difficult to excel at one skill without excelling at the others. For instance, communication involves verbal and nonverbal skills as well as listening. Listening, “the ability to truly hear what people are saying,” Matuson said, is difficult without emotional intelligence, which is the ability to comprehend and handle emotions. Decision making and problem solving are entwined, as are collaboration and teamwork.
Employers value strong interpersonal skills because they help teams function more effectively,” said Jill Bowman, director of people at New York-based fintech company Octane. Interpersonal skills such as active listening, collaboration, empathy, team building, negotiation and leadership develop over time and can be improved with practice and training, Bowman said.
13 Interpersonal Skills Examples
“How we share ourselves in words and spoken thoughts, express through our physical reactions via body language and actively seek to understand others through listening are crucial to building other interpersonal/soft skills such as teamwork, conflict resolution and negotiation,” said Jamie Johnson, career advisor at the University of Phoenix. Well-developed communication skills create foundational people skills required to successfully interact with others and build fresh and positive personal and professional connections, Johnson added.
“Having the self confidence and conviction to make yourself heard allows you to increase collaboration with others and be an advocate in fostering your own success.” - Meighan (Meg) Newhouse, Inspirant Group, Naperville, Illinois
Communication requires both verbal and nonverbal skills. Verbal skills are the ability to articulate, in writing and while speaking, what you’re thinking, what you need and what you want to contribute, said Meighan (Meg) Newhouse, CEO and cofounder at Inspirant Group, a management consulting company based in Naperville, Illinois.
“Having the self confidence and conviction to make yourself heard allows you to increase collaboration with others and be an advocate in fostering your own success,” Newhouse said, adding that the best way to develop this skill is to push through fear and “just do it.”
Nonverbal skills include making eye contact, proper body language (for instance, arms not crossed in a defensive stance) and gestures, all of which can make a difference in people feeling engaged and comfortable, Newhouse said.
Ever talk to someone whose mind seems to be on everything but what you’re saying? Active listening means engaging with the person with whom you’re talking, not just listening with one ear as you formulate what to say in response.
Active listening is crucial in the workplace, where people must interact in order to overcome challenges, said Mike Grossman, CEO of GoodHire, a Redwood City, California-based company that runs background checks on prospective employees. Active listening involves nonverbal communication, including uncrossed arms, maintaining eye contact and leaning in toward the speaker, Grossman said.
Strong active listening also means asking specific questions about what the speaker is saying, as well as verbally affirming that you’re paying attention without interrupting the speaker’s train of thought, Grossman said. “This conveys engagement and gives you a fundamentally deeper understanding of the topic being discussed,” he said.
Relational intelligence is the ability to successfully connect with people and build strong, long-lasting relationships, said Adam Bandelli, an organizational psychologist who has pioneered the concept and written a book, Relational Intelligence: The Five Essential Skills You Need to Build Life-Changing Relationships, about it.
It’s the everything bagel of interpersonal skills, encompassing establishing rapport, understanding others, embracing individual differences, developing trust, cultivating influence and serving others.
• Establishing rapport requires making a strong first impression, finding similarities and common ground, and creating a safe and enjoyable space for people to have a positive connection.
• Understanding others requires “good self-awareness and EQ, being curious and inquisitive, and actively listening to others,” Bandelli said. “It’s about being intentional in putting in the time and energy to get to know people on a deep level.”
• Embracing individual differences means understanding and accepting that people might be different from you, and those differences, be they sexual orientation, gender, ethnicities, race, religion or socioeconomic background, are what makes teams strong.
• Developing trust requires commitment, consistency, character, courage and integrity. “Leaders need to continually deposit into a bank account of trust to build a sense of camaraderie and commitment from their people,” Bandelli said, noting that employees tend to stay with companies when they have a sound relationship with leaders. Once trust is gained, “you can’t use it to manipulate, control or use people” he said. “Trust is not about controlling your people.”
• Cultivating influence means having a positive and meaningful impact on people, whether it’s teammates, direct reports or the entire organization. To develop this part of relational intelligence, find a mentor who has superb interpersonal skills, Bandelli said.
• Practicing these five essential relational intelligence skills is about servant leadership. No matter their place on the organizational chart, “great leaders know that serving their people leads to higher levels of performance, goals and objectives are attained, KPIs are delivered, and organizations achieve great financial success and profitability,” Bandelli said.
Effectively responding to challenges and questions and offering well-thought-out and convincing evidence and responses is part of the interpersonal/soft skills tool bag, said Johnson of University of Phoenix.
The art of persuasion is as much about gaining a new perspective as it is convincing someone to your side or “winning” an argument: “They may provide valuable insight into issues and may give you the ability to voice your thoughts and opinions in a situation that can provide another perspective,” Johnson said.
You need emotional intelligence to manage and leverage your and other people’s emotions, said Donna McGeorge, a productivity coach based in Australia. “It is the ability to understand the way people feel and react, monitor your own state and to use this to make good judgments and to avoid or solve problems,” she said. Developing emotional intelligence builds strong workplace relationships that will help you and your team achieve your goals.
The building blocks of emotional intelligence are self regulation, which is managing your feelings, emotions and behavior in healthy ways, including adapting when necessary; self awareness, or knowing your strengths and weaknesses; other awareness, which is picking up emotional cues and group dynamics and having empathy for the needs of others; building and maintaining relationships via clear communication, McGeorge said.
It’s how we identify and choose among alternatives and is closely related to problem solving, McGeorge said. Decision-making is far from the rational process we might believe it is, she added, citing a 2000 study by social psychologists Jennifer Lerner and Dacher Kelter. The two found that “fearful people made pessimistic judgments of future events and angry people made optimistic judgments,” the report said. “In other words, we are at risk of making dumb decisions when we are not in full control of our emotions,” McGeorge said.
Information overload, which results in the illusion of knowledge, incomplete information, or even being under deadline pressure can result in poor decisions, McGeorge said. Lack of sleep, too, has a “tremendous impact” on decision-making, she said. Finally, being bombarded with decisions to make can result in decision fatigue, which can lead to poor decision-making.
This is one of the interpersonal skills that really pulls together all the skills. Effective teamwork requires communication skills, the ability to support and respect teammates, the ability to think and learn out loud (for instance, “so what I hear you saying is...” or “if I understand you correctly, you’d like us to…”), and the ability to “listen, really listen,” McGeorge said. “Even better, listen with an intention to have your mind changed.”
The benefits of effective teamwork stretch beyond accomplishing goals, she added. “When done right, there’s almost an alchemy of unique gifts, talents and skills that can create a competitive advantage and have people feel great about their work,” McGeorge said.
“Employers frequently want you to rely on and help others in order to achieve a common goal,” said Shiv Gupta, CEO of Incrementors, an inbound marketing company based in Sacramento, California. Collaboration means knowing when to step back and be supportive and when to take the lead. Collaboration is also entwined with teamwork. “As a successful team player, you should have a variety of the aforementioned talents, including empathy, respect, bargaining, and communication, as well as a positive attitude,” Gupta said.
This interpersonal skill combines assertion and the ability to say no, said Lisa Bahar, an adjunct professor of psychology at Pepperdine University, Malibu, California, and a licensed marriage and family therapist and clinical counselor.
An example of objective effectiveness in use would be describing a situation, expressing your feelings and opinions, asking for what you want, and then helping the other person understand that what you want benefits both of you. “This is not intended to be manipulative,” Bahar said. “There are also skills, when a person responds, which include being mindful of your objective and learning how to ignore attacks.”
These skills depend on the ability to use analytical and creative thinking to find solutions, said Amy Zimmerman, chief people officer at Atlanta, Georgia-based digital payment system Relay Payments and cofounder of leadership consultancy PeopleCo. Analysis, persuasion, logical reasoning, persistence, brainstorming and decision-making are all skills required to effectively solve problems, she said.
It’s a way for two or more parties to find a peaceful solution to a disagreement among them. It’s a five-step process, starting with defining the source of the conflict, looking beyond the incident, requesting solutions, identifying solutions both sides can support, and reaching an agreement, Zimmerman said.
This critical skill involves listening to the other party, understanding where they’re coming from as well as what’s important to them, said Andrea Ippolito, CEO and founder of Ithaca, New York-based SimpliFed, a telehealth platform focused on lactation, child nutrition and on-demand support for new parents.
Successful negotiators identify the ZOPA, or zone of possible agreement, which is the common area on which both sides agree. “By understanding this zone, it allows you to meet somewhere in there for each party to accomplish what they need,” Ippolito said.
High-quality negotiating skills help get internal and external stakeholders to buy into what you are trying to communicate, said Joe Vu, digital marketing manager at Fairport, New York-based QuickFi, maker of an app that simplifies business-equipment financing. “Using the right data insights and context can help strengthen your negotiation, and ultimately help you become a better communicator and leader,” he said.
It’s accepting that other people can and will think and behave differently than you do. “Tolerance can be a challenge in the workplace because of individual disagreements or personal biases,” said Sam Cohen, founder of Gold Tree Consulting, a growth marketing agency based in Austin, Texas. Tolerance is acquired through exposure to different points of view and ways of thinking, and also with experience managing changes. “Change is imminent,” Cohen said, recommending meditation and practicing patience to hone tolerance.
Why Are Interpersonal Skills Important?
Love makes the world go round, and interpersonal skills keep the workplace world spinning properly. Not only that: Interpersonal skills can make a tech professional a standout and help forge a promising career.
During his 27 years in tech, Patrick Hayes has developed, refined and used interpersonal skills as a way to influence outcomes and gain buy-in from others. “I have often been called a ‘people person,’ or someone who can get along well with others,” said Hayes, chief strategy officer at Chicago-based UncommonX, a SaaS-based cybersecurity firm.
Tech professionals, in his opinion, tend to be introverted and rely on facts, data and technical experience to reach decisions. “Developing your interpersonal skills, while it may seem touchy-feely, can be an important aspect of your career growth into leadership and roles with a greater scope of responsibility,” Hayes said.
Interpersonal skills help soothe a variety of office issues, including disagreements, which can and will happen even in the happiest of workplaces. “Whatever the disagreement is, it’s important to separate the behavior from the individual,” said Hayes. ”As yourself, ‘why does the other person see things this way?’ You might not reach a mutually shared outcome, but this approach will provide the ability to focus on the issue and not the person,” he said.
How to Develop Your Interpersonal Skills
To be sure, some people are naturally charismatic and possess a full set of interpersonal skills. Others need to develop and refine interpersonal skills. Miriam Frankel, director of Thrive Group, a Passaic, New Jersey-based counseling center, offers nine tips for doing just that.
Every day, remind yourself of the good things about your life and your job. If you’re upset about a personal matter, set those feelings aside until after work. If you’re stressed about a work issue, look for the positive in the situation and try to build on that.
Control Your Emotions
Work isn’t the place to be overly emotional. Whether you’re extremely irritated, severely depressed or ecstatically happy, take a deep breath and tone your emotions down. Always express yourself in a calm, patient manner.
Acknowledge Others’ Expertise
One of the best ways to build trust at work is to let your co-workers know you appreciate their expertise. Ask for their help on projects and give credit where credit is due.
Show Genuine Interest in Your Colleagues
Make a point of getting to know what’s important to your co-workers. It will help solidify your relationships with them.
Find One Good Trait in Every Co-worker
Not all of us like every single person we work with but you can’t let personal preference get in the way of peak performance. If a colleague’s personality clashes completely with your own, the best way to handle the situation is by finding at least one good trait in that person — preferably something professional.
Practice Active Listening
Maintain eye contact with the speaker, nod your head, and repeat what they have said in your own words. The speaker will feel respected and you’re likely to be able to recall the conversation more easily afterwards.
Be confident in your ability and opinions, and don’t be afraid to express your needs, as well as your limits.
Gain a well-rounded view of things by putting yourself in other people’s shoes. This will help you develop empathy for others, which in turn goes a long way in finding solutions that work for all involved.
Maintain Your Relationships
Connect with college friends and former colleagues on social media or through email; try to set up face-to-face meetings now and then. This shows your connections that you still value the relationship — and that can go a long way in helping you advance your career.
Interpersonal Skills and Impostor Syndrome
Some people might require more time to develop interpersonal skills; others, less. One group of professionals, surprisingly enough, might have highly developed personal skills, yet lack the confidence to recognize them.
That group? People with impostor syndrome — the belief that others think you’re smarter than you think you are.
Impostor syndrome is largely regarded as a professional negative. Yet new research by Basima A. Tewfik, assistant professor of work and organization studies at Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sloan School of Management, indicates that those who have “impostor thoughts” might be viewed by others as having better interpersonal skills.
In a paper forthcoming in the Academy of Management Journal, Tewfik “develops a model linking workplace impostor thoughts to other-perceived interpersonal effectiveness,” she writes in the abstract. She posits that people with more impostor thoughts are rated higher in interpersonal effectiveness “because such thoughts make them more other-oriented.”
Perceived interpersonal effectiveness “refers to how well others perceive that one cooperates and interacts with one’s environment,” Tewfik writes in the abstract. People with higher interpersonal effectiveness levels are those who create effective working relationships and relate well to others.
Because accomplishing things at work increasingly involves interacting with others, having employees low in interpersonal effectiveness can cost workplaces millions of dollars in ill outcomes and mismanaged projects, she writes, citing colleagues’ research on the subject.
Tewfik tested her theory in four studies with four groups: employees at an investment advisory firm, doctors-in-training and what she calls “two cross-industry sets of employees recruited online.” Members of each group were evaluated for workplace impostor thoughts and interpersonal effectiveness by various means.
In one employee study, for instance, half of the employees were randomly assigned to recall a time at work in which they had impostor thoughts while the other half were randomly assigned to recall what they had for lunch that day. Employees were all then told to imagine that right after the experience they recalled, they got the chance to have an informal coffee chat with a hiring manager that could result in a promotion. Employees were offered the option of either asking or answering questions during this conversation.
Tewfik found that those in the “impostor thoughts” group choose to ask more questions. As a result of this increased “other-focus,” hiring managers gave them higher interpersonal effectiveness scores.
In summary? Impostor syndrome might feel like a career liability, but can be a real asset when it comes to getting along in the workplace. And so can a toolbox of well-honed interpersonal skills.
Take a moment each day to perfect these essential skills. Your career will thank you for it.