What Are Interpersonal Skills? And How to Strengthen Them

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We use interpersonal skills in many areas of our daily life, including in our careers. Learn top interpersonal skills to cultivate and how to build them.

[Featured Image]:  Two co-workers communicating with each other as they discuss using teamwork to complete a project.

Humans are social creatures, each participating 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—now one of the best-selling books of all time. He offered seemingly simple advice like: Be a good listener. Don’t criticise, condemn, or complain. 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 22 per cent by 2030 in Europe and the United Kingdom, according to McKinsey [1].

What are interpersonal skills?

We use interpersonal skills when interacting and communicating with others to help start, build, and sustain relationships. Transferable skills are innate and learnt 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. 

For example, a marketing manager leads a brainstorming session and intentionally solicits participation from interns and newer team members, allowing their ideas and opinions a chance to shine. This example demonstrates a few interpersonal skills in action, including teamwork, leadership, motivation, and empathy.

Such skills enable us to interact with others effectively, whether in the workplace, school, or everyday life. Some common interpersonal skills include:

  • Communication

  • Empathy

  • Emotional intelligence

  • Conflict resolution

  • Negotiation

  • Listening

  • Positive attitude

  • Teamwork

  • Collaboration

  • Leadership

  • Networking

  • Mediating

  • Persuasion

  • Motivation

Many 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.

How to strengthen your interpersonal skills

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. Self-awareness allows you to better understand your strengths whilst making it possible to focus on areas needing improvement. 

Continuous pursuit of self-improvement and confidence can benefit your personal and professional relationships. Here’s how you can build on your interpersonal skills:

1. Assess your current skill set.

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.

2. Create an action plan.

Choose one or two skills you would like to strengthen. Apply an actionable plan using one of the solutions below:

  • Self-reflection

    • Problem: ‘I get nervous whenever 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’.

  • Build relationships

    • Problem: ‘I have been at this company for three months and 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 I have wanted to discuss with them for some time now.

  • Take an online class

    • Problem: ‘There aren’t many opportunities for me to practise negotiation or persuasion in my current workplace’.

    • Plan: ‘I will take a class 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’.

3. Apply your interpersonal skills for career success.

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 challenging and force you outside of your comfort zone, but the reward is well worth it. Being part of a team, such as a sports team or joining a club, can help you practise interpersonal skills that can contribute to your professional networking and career success.

Here are some ways to apply the skills to each part of the job search:

On your CV and cover letter

Interpersonal skills are defined by how you deal with different personalities in dynamic situations, so demonstrating them on a CV can be difficult. CVs tend to list technical skills needed to get the job done. 

However, you can incorporate interpersonal skills when you write 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 programme 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, emphasising 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 organisation.

In a job interview

Performing well in a job interview also requires interpersonal skills. Unlike when you prepare your CV, an interview offers an opportunity to showcase your skills to potential employers through your actions and conversation. 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 behavioural 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.

On the job

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 practise 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. 

Get started with Coursera

Start strengthening your interpersonal skills with Coaching Skills for Managers from UC Davis or Inspirational Leadership: Leading with Sense from HEC Paris on Coursera. You will learn important interpersonal skills such as integrating trust and compassion into your leadership style, instilling humility in the workplace, and exploring your leadership style and strengths.

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Article sources

  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 12, 2023.

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