Interpersonal Skills: Start Here
Building Highly Effective Working Relationships
"No man is an island." – John Donne (1572–1631)
You may not realize it, but interpersonal skills, or people skills, are something you already have. After all, you've been learning how to get along with others since the day you were born!
But positive daily interactions don't always "just happen," whether in business or in our personal lives. Getting the results that you need can be difficult when you don't "click" with people, or if you don't know how to act or what to say.
That's why strong interpersonal skills are as important in the workplace as "hard" technical skills or formal qualifications, regardless of the position you hold. They can help you to create good working relationships, manage conflict, motivate your team, increase productivity, solve problems, network effectively, and increase happiness and engagement at work.
In this article, we'll examine why interpersonal skills are vital, and we'll highlight the Mind Tools resources that you can use to develop your skills in four key areas: Interpersonal Communication, Managing Differences, Managing Agreement, and Personal Integrity.
To assess the level of your interpersonal skills, try our How Good Are Your People Skills? quiz.
Why it's Important to Have Good Interpersonal Skills
Interpersonal and other "soft" skills matter because we're working more closely with a greater number of people than ever before. A 2016 study found that the time managers and employees spent working collaboratively had increased by over 50 percent in the past two decades.
Organizations value interpersonal skills highly because of this increased emphasis on team-working. One survey revealed that 60 percent of employers consider the ability to work in a group to be the most important skill for graduates entering the workplace.
But good interpersonal skills are crucial for our health, too. A 2017 article in the Harvard Business Review claimed that positive working relationships could help you to avoid burnout, exhaustion, and even loneliness.
Improving Your Interpersonal Skills
The foundation of interpersonal skills is emotional intelligence, or EI. That is, being aware of your thoughts, actions and feelings, and of your impact on others, and the ability to sense others' moods and needs.
Developing your EI allows you to self-regulate – to make positive choices about how you interact with other people, and to think before you act. (See our article, Managing Your Emotions at Work, for more on this.)
Take a look at our article 10 Ways to Become a Star Team Player. Note how many of the desired attributes are based on EI and strong interpersonal skills.
Now, let's see how you can develop your interpersonal skills in four areas.
1. Improving Your Communication Skills
Business communications require a good understanding of your audience. Our Communications Planning article outlines a simple process that you can follow to assess your audience, to choose an appropriate channel to reach them, and to monitor the effectiveness of your message.
When you convey information, use your powers of negotiation and persuasion to present your case, rather than stating your opinion as fact, and be prepared to compromise. You can use rhetoric to construct a persuasive argument, but it's important to remain credible and authentic.
And crucially, when you've delivered your message, listen carefully to the response. Active Listening techniques help you to pay close attention, to show the speaker that you are taking their words on board, and to respond constructively. Mindful Listening can help you to focus on what's being said, and to "tune out" distractions.
"Looking" also plays a part in "listening." We pick up cues from a person's body language. They tell us whether he or she is confident, or bored, or thinking about something else – and even if he's lying.
Becoming more aware of posture, eye contact, hand gestures, and tone of voice helps us to "read" other people more effectively and to adapt our communication style accordingly. And if we recognize our own body language, we can project a feeling that we may not actually be experiencing – to appear confident in job interviews, for example.
Whether you want to make a good first impression, to attend a speed networking event, to meet a new boss for the first time, or to just get along better with your colleagues, good interpersonal communication skills will help you to make every second count.
Be sure not to overlook your online communications. Find out more in our articles, Working in a Virtual Team, Five Ways to Build Rapport Online and 10 Common Email Mistakes, and our infographic, How to Write Effective Emails.
For more guidance on improving your interpersonal communication skills, see the Communicate! Learning Stream.
2. Learning to Manage Differences
You'll likely encounter conflict, or at least differences that seem hard to reconcile, at some point in your working life. You may, for example, find yourself dealing with rude or difficult people, or those who feel they need to "cut you down to size" (known as "tall poppy syndrome.") In such situations, the ability to remain calm but assertive is a key interpersonal skill.
Unresolved conflict can be damaging and disruptive, and often affects morale and productivity. It can result in personal animosity, making people feel as if they have to "take sides," disengage from the team, or even leave the organization.
On the other hand, conflict can bring underlying issues to the surface, where you can examine, acknowledge and deal with them. This can help to prevent similar problems from recurring and to enhance mutual understanding.
That's why the ability to deal with conflict effectively is an interpersonal skill that's highly valued by employers.
So let's look at three approaches to conflict resolution:
The Interest-Based Relational (IBR) Approach advocates separating the problem from the people involved. You examine the issue objectively, simply setting out the facts to discuss without damaging your relationships. This requires courtesy, listening skills, understanding, and a willingness to compromise.
Perceptual Positions is an exercise that helps you to see other people's points of view. You assign, say, chairs in your office to the opposing points of view, plus one for an objective observer. Then you sit in each chair in turn and picture the situation from the three different perspectives.
And Bell and Hart's Eight Causes of Conflict can help you to identify the source of, and therefore a solution to, an issue. The causes range from insufficient resourcing and confused roles to incompatible values and unpredictable policies, and our article gives you pointers on how to manage each one.
It's always best to defuse a tense situation by negotiation before it escalates into a conflict. Our article, "Yes" to the Person, "No" to the Task, outlines a way for you to address another person's needs, even when she's making demands that you consider to be unreasonable.
3. Learning to Manage Agreement
We've seen how you can use your interpersonal skills to manage conflict. But how do you create an agreeable and harmonious working environment?
The first step is to use your interpersonal skills to establish trust. Trust enables you to be more effective, to take worthwhile risks, and to feel secure. You can discover useful strategies for working with your co-workers, clients and suppliers in our article, Building Trust.
The next step is to work towards a situation where team members understand one another. They can collaborate to improve the team's overall performance, if you can help them to reveal more about themselves, safely. The Johari Window is a useful tool to help you to Manage Mutual Acceptance.
Understanding individuals' interpersonal strengths helps you to match them with suitable tasks or projects. This can increase their motivation, engagement and productivity. Read our article, Four Dimensions of Relational Work, to find out how to assign tasks based on people's attributes.
Another key aspect of managing agreement relates to feedback. People will likely view poorly expressed feedback as destructive criticism. Deliver it well, however, and you can address difficult issues before they worsen.
There are many more Mind Tools resources that can help you to manage agreement with your co-workers and get them working together more effectively. These include Finding Your Allies, Working With Powerful People, Managing Your Boss, Motivating Managers, and Winning by Giving.
4. Maintaining Your Personal Integrity
Your integrity – your ability to stand up for what you believe in – is central to your interpersonal skills. Integrity enables you to measure your choices and decisions when dealing with others against the benchmark of your personal values. Your reputation and personal brand rest on it.
This can keep you on the right track on a daily basis – simply interacting with others in a friendly, polite way, for example, can make a huge difference to the people around you. It can also guide you through challenging but potentially rewarding situations, such as working with rivals. It is also important if you're in a position of authority.
Leadership is an interpersonal skill in its own right, and you can find many resources on that subject here. In particular, our articles on Rewarding Your Team, Leading by Example, and Ethical Leadership can help you to lead with integrity.
Interpersonal skills are vital for forming and maintaining effective working relationships.
They require a high degree of emotional intelligence, which enables you to understand how your thoughts and actions affect others in the workplace.
You can develop your interpersonal skills in four key areas:
- Communication skills. Craft your message carefully, with your audience in mind, be aware of body language, and listen.
- Managing differences. Deal with difficult people assertively but with good grace, and learn to resolve conflict.
- Managing agreement. Establish trust and a supportive working environment. Accept the strengths and weaknesses in your team, and give effective feedback.
- Personal integrity. Recognize your core values, and act accordingly.
This site teaches you the skills you need for a happy and successful career; and this is just one of many tools and resources that you'll find here at Mind Tools. Subscribe to our free newsletter, or join the Mind Tools Club and really supercharge your career!