What Are Interpersonal Skills? And How to Strengthen Them

Written by Coursera Staff • Updated on

Interpersonal skills are important in work, school, and life. Learn how to strengthen yours.

[Featured image] A business woman with brown hair and blue sweater chats with two female colleagues about a proposal on her laptop.

Humans are social creatures 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 personally and professionally. 

In 1936, Dale Carnegie published How to Win Friends and Influence People, now one of the best-selling books ever. He offered seemingly simple advice, such as being a good listener, not criticising, condemning, or complaining, and trying 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. 

What are interpersonal skills?

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. 

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

Such skills enable us to interact with others effectively in the workplace, school or daily. These are some of the most common interpersonal skills:

  • Communication

  • Empathy

  • Emotional intelligence

  • Conflict resolution

  • Negotiation

  • Listening

  • Positive attitude

  • Teamwork

  • Collaboration

  • Leadership

  • Networking

  • Mediating

  • Persuasion

  • Motivation

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.

How to strengthen your interpersonal skills

Knowing your strengths and weaknesses regarding social interactions can help you determine which skills you want to strengthen. 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:

1. Assess your current skill set.

The first step is to identify your strengths and weaknesses. Based on the list of interpersonal skills above, think about your past interactions with colleagues, bosses, friends, family, partners, and even strangers. Review each skill and reflect on your 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 a while.'

  • Take an online class

    • Problem: 'There aren’t many opportunities 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 to 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. Strengthening these skills can sometimes be challenging and force you outside 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. 

How you deal with different personalities in dynamic situations defines interpersonal skills, so demonstrating them on a resume can take time and effort. Resumes list technical skills needed to get the job done. However, you can incorporate interpersonal skills when writing 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 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 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 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.

Performing well in a job interview also requires interpersonal skills—only this time can you 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 as a health care professional to relay a breach of ethics to several stakeholders through different communication channels.

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.

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 need more cohesion when many new members join. With your manager, you can practice active listening to ensure you comprehend their expectations so that you may intuit when you are ready to take on more responsibility—and ask for it. 

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Strengthen your ability to actively listen, communicate effectively, respond to conflict, and build and maintain trust in the workplace with Developing Interpersonal Skills from IBM (part of the People and Soft Skills for Professional and Personal Success Specialization). Get access to this and more than 7000 other courses, projects, and certificates for one low monthly price with Coursera Plus.

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