Interpersonal skills are all about how we interact with others. I have seen dozens of studies and articles that cite the importance of soft skills, or non-technical skills in the workforce. These soft skills include a wide variety of things which are not formally or directly taught in schools. It includes skills related to decision making, being responsible, working in teams, communication, managing priorities, and other skills that contribute to our ability to be successful. The majority of these soft skills can be grouped into one large category called interpersonal skills.
The primary way we interact with others is through communication. But while communication skills focus on WHAT we say, interpersonal skills focus on both HOW we say it and HOW it is received. Don’t overlook the importance of how the message is perceived and received. Just because a message was given does not mean everyone understood it as intended. And that is why the ability to communicate effectively is a primary hiring desire in almost every career field, and an essential skill for leaders.
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The 3 Building Blocks
Interpersonal skills are rooted in three building blocks that work together to create an interaction with others – the people we interact with, the process of the communication delivery, and the environment in which the people receive the delivery. We need to understand these building blocks as they stand alone and how they come together. It is how they are brought together that makes the communication successful or not. Interpersonal skills are the ability to create the specific how you desire.
In other words, you can have a hammer, nails, and wood. You can even have a basic understanding of what each item is and what it does. But if you don’t understand how they can be brought together to create a desired product, say a chair, your effort fails. Your effort will also fail if you are not able to effectively convey the execution strategy. How you configure the wood, how you determine which set of nails to use, and how you determine where each nail needs to be hammered in, is what will allow you to build the chair. It is the how that brings it all together.
Interpersonal skills are the how of interacting with others. That how is frequently determined by the business processes that make up the environment in which you work. Knowing the best approach for connecting your people skills to the processes that you function within, is the way successful leaders implement interpersonal skills to excel in their careers.
Basic Communication Model – the foundation of interpersonal skills and leadership skills
1. People – WHO
We have all heard that we need to know who our audience is before we give a presentation. But it is not just giving a presentation, but for all types of communication that we need to know who we are interacting with. Each of us has our own way of perceiving information and we all interpret things a bit differently based on our previous experiences. Everything that happens to us over the course of our lives effects the meaning we associate with words and the tone in which we perceive they are being delivered.
For example, even within the U.S. there are different regions that use different expressions and each generation has its own set of catch phrases and words. Someone from another region or generational group may not understand the expressions and phrases that you typically use.
Being raised in the Northeast, I tend to be very direct and outspoken. I was raised in an area where that approach is encouraged and seen as socially correct. When I moved to the South, this approach was seen as offensive and confrontational. In order to successfully communicate, I had to adapt my word choices and soften my tone in order for my audience to be willing to listen to me.
The better we understand who it is we are interacting with, the more we can adapt our message and approach to a way that will be well received by them. Do they prefer detailed explanations or short summaries? Do they prefer text or visuals? If we want a positive interaction with someone, we need to think beyond the way we like to express ourselves and consider how the other person likes to receive their communication.
2. Process – WHAT
There are a couple of different pieces to the process puzzle. The first is knowing the communication culture. Is there an expectation that communication flows in a certain direction; do you have a chain of command that needs to be followed? What are the expectations of how people with certain titles are to be addressedr? Is the language used formal and precise or casual and conversational? Does the business have an established tool that you are expected to use?
For a short time, I worked in a business where speaking to or emailing someone more than two levels above you on the leadership ladder, without gaining the proper authorization first, could be considered insubordination. That business had a very strict process for its flow of communication, and a similarly strict process for bringing forward new ideas. As someone who likes to collaborate and build relationships at all levels in an organization, I found these processes very challenging.
Equally important is having a clear understanding of the purpose of the message. What type of message are you communicating? Are you sharing a discovery, insight, or other information? Do you want to persuade, inspire or motivate a certain action? Are you giving a directive? Different purposes, different what’s require different ways or how’s of implementation.
3. Environment – WHERE
Where the people physically are when they receive your communication has become much more diverse over the past few years. This trend will continue as virtual communication continues to expand into the business world. It also requires us to change our how (interaction) strategies if we are to be effective.
In face to face situations you need to consider the proximity of others to you. Are you interacting with one other person, ten people, a hundred, a thousand? As the numbers increase so do the opportunities for distractions and missed meanings. Will everyone be able to hear you adequately? Will everyone be able to see your facial expressions and other body language? Are you using visual aids, and will everyone be able to access them?
In virtual situations you need to account for the type of technology being used and how to address any potential mishaps. In addition, the distraction card is a major hurdle. It is very common for people to multi-task during virtual interactions. Maybe they are researching a topic that was raised, or checking their email, or working on another project, or any of a hundred other activities. People participate differently when they are virtual than when they are in the room with you.
Blended are the most challenging situations. That is when you are face to face with part of your audience while the other part of your audience is virtual. In these situations, you have to be able to adapt for the virtual distractions while still addressing the needs of those who are present with you.
Interpersonal skills are how you put all these building blocks together. This is where the action takes place. You know your audience; the process; and you know the environment. Your ability, your how, to put all this knowledge together effectively is what will determine your success.
Imagine that you have been asked to present a company recognition award for ten years of service to one of your colleagues. In this scenario you are apt to use a friendly and conversational tone. The presentation will most likely be taking place in person and you should expect to be photographed. You will need to know the proper etiquette for creating a positive photo opportunity while giving the award and shaking your colleague’s hand.
Now imagine that you are a remote worker who is renegotiating your contract. In this scenario you are apt to take a formal language and tone approach to the conversation. You will be following company procedures related to contract negotiation to ensure everything can be processed properly. Most likely you will use audio-video conferencing rather than just audio, so you might want to record the conversation. And you will follow up the discussion with a written summary of any changes to be made.
My Point Is…
Your ability to recognize the vastly different approaches you need to take in each of these scenarios, and your ability to execute those strategies, is a reflection of your interpersonal skills. As I stated earlier, interpersonal skills is a broad term that encompasses many other skills. Recognition and negotiation are two examples. There are hundreds of ways and purposes for which we interact with others. For each of these we need to use a different set of interpersonal skills. That is why the continued development of these skills is so important.
Leadership, by definition, involves more than one person. It involves interacting with a wide variety of people, on a wide variety of topics, using a wide variety of processes and technology. Interacting with others is a significant piece of leadership. The better your ability to interact with others – the better your interpersonal skills – the stronger impact you will have as a leader.
Revised November 2021. Originally published July 2019 under the previous business name The OD Pro.
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