Humans are social creatures who participate in our respective work, school, and play communities. We do not live in isolation, so interpersonal skills are critical to help us function and succeed in our personal and professional lives.
In 1936, Dale Carnegie published How to Win Friends and Influence People—is now one of the best-selling books of all time. He offered seemingly simple advice like: Be a good listener; don’t criticize, condemn, or complain; and try to see things from someone else’s perspective. Having sold over 30 million copies in 36 languages, Carnegie's book (and legacy) reminds us that a desire to improve one’s interpersonal skills resonates with people.
Further, these kinds of skills continue to gain importance in the workplace. The amount of time devoted to social and emotional skills (such as leadership and managing others) will rise by 24 percent by 2030, to 22 percent of hours worked, according to McKinsey .
We use Interpersonal skills when interacting and communicating with others to help start, build, and sustain relationships. Sometimes called people skills, these are innate and learned skills used in social situations pertinent to your career, education, and personal life. These skills include working creatively with others, communicating clearly, collaborating, adapting to change, flexibility, interacting effectively with diverse teams, guiding and leading others, and being responsible, according to the Partnership for 21st Century Skills.
As an example, a marketing manager leads a brainstorming session and intentionally solicits participation from interns and newer members of the team so their ideas and opinions get a chance to shine. This demonstrates a few interpersonal skills in action: teamwork, leadership, motivation, and empathy.
Such skills enable us to interact with others effectively, whether in the workplace, school, or on a daily basis. These are some of the most common interpersonal skills:
Most people already possess many of these in some capacity. But there is always room for improvement. Introverted individuals may become drained from too much social interaction, yet are observant, intuitive, and adept when interacting with others. Developing self-awareness and an openness to learning is an excellent first step to strengthening your interpersonal skills.
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Knowing your strengths and weaknesses regarding social interactions can help you determine which skills you want to hone. The desire to strengthen your people skills does not mean you are lacking in any way. Continuous pursuit of self-improvement and confidence can benefit your personal and professional relationships. Here’s how you can build on your interpersonal skills:
The first step is to identify your strengths and weaknesses. Based on the list above of interpersonal skills, think about your past interactions with colleagues, bosses, friends, family, partners, and even strangers. Go through each skill and reflect on your past experiences for positive and negative examples. Write down the skills you feel you have mastered and those that present an opportunity to improve.
Choose one or two skills you would like to strengthen. Apply an actionable plan using one of the solutions below.
Problem: “I get nervous every time I approach a colleague with a question.”
Plan: “I will challenge my negative thinking by imagining possible outcomes of this interaction with my colleague. Then, I will focus on the best-case scenario before approaching them to boost my confidence further.”
Problem: “I have been at this company for three months, and I still don’t know anyone very well.”
Plan: “At the next company happy hour, I will speak to at least one person I don’t know. I will also engage a team member in a conversation, maybe noting a topic in mind that I have wanted to discuss with them for a while.”
Take an online class
Problem: “There aren’t many opportunities for me to practice negotiation or persuasion in my current workplace.”
Plan: “I will take a class like Successful Negotiation to become familiar with the strategies and skills. Then, I will commit to implementing at least one of the negotiation techniques that I learn.”
Ask for feedback or constructive criticism
Problem: “I have no idea how I am doing at work.”
Plan: “I will ask my manager for a quarterly assessment so we can set benchmarks for goals and growth.”
Wherever you go, whatever you choose to do with your career, you will interact with other people. Building solid relationships is key to getting that promotion, fostering team harmony, and dealing with conflict. The process of strengthening these skills can sometimes be tough and force you outside of your comfort zone, but the reward is well worth it. Here are some ways to apply the skills to each part of the job search.
Interpersonal skills are defined by how you deal with different personalities in dynamic situations, so demonstrating them on a resume can be difficult. Resumes tend to list technical skills needed to get the job done. However, you can incorporate interpersonal skills when you are writing out bullet points for a specific job experience, such as including a line that describes your leadership ability: “Managed a team of six to implement fire evacuation policies for the entire company.” Or you might include a line about collaboration: “Executed an idea to hire influencers for marketing a new eco-friendly face cream by working with cross-functional teams.”
Another place to highlight interpersonal skills is in your cover letter. Here you have more space to describe a particular achievement, such as participating in a case study team project in your MBA program that turned into a start-up idea that won grant funding. As long as these types of experiences are relevant to the job you’re applying for, emphasizing your interpersonal skills can strengthen your application.
Finally, it is good practice to show that you possess strong interpersonal skills by being polite, responsive, and enthusiastic in emails and interactions when a recruiter contacts you. Throughout the job search process, your actions craft an image of who you are and whether your values align with the organization.
Performing well in a job interview also requires interpersonal skills—only this time you can show the potential employer through your actions and conversation just how your skills might play out if you land the role. For example, you can explain a scenario in which you used communication to relay a breach of ethics to several stakeholders through different communication channels as a health care professional.
Some jobs require behavioral interviews, in which the STAR method (situation, task, action, and result) can be effective. This is an excellent opportunity to integrate interpersonal skills and demonstrate how you resolved a conflict or performed well under pressure.
Perhaps the best opportunity to strengthen your interpersonal skills is on the job. For example, with your colleagues, you can lead a team-building activity at a meeting if you observe a lack of cohesion when many new members join. With your manager, you can practice active listening to make sure you comprehend their expectations so that you may intuit when you are ready to take on more responsibility—and ask for it.
Start strengthening your interpersonal skills with Coaching Skills for Managers from UC Davis or Inspirational Leadership: Leading with Sense from HEC Paris. Get access to these and more than 7,000 other courses, projects, and certificates for one low monthly price with Coursera Plus.
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1. McKinsey & Company. "Skill Shift Automation and the Future of the Workforce, https://www.mckinsey.com/featured-insights/future-of-work/skill-shift-automation-and-the-future-of-the-workforce." Accessed February 11, 2022.
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