The Top 3 Workplace Interpersonal Skills
Updated: Mar 6
Why do Interpersonal Skills Matter?
Employers are increasingly looking for interpersonal skills, or soft skills, when making a hiring decision. Whereas hard skills are directly tied to your ability to do a given job (such as programming, accounting, or knowing specific regulations), interpersonal skills have to do with our ability to effectively interact with others.
It makes sense why hiring managers would emphasize these skills. In most modern companies the team is the unit where real work happens. A person may be a phenomenal individual contributor, but if they can’t work well with others, those contributions will never make it into the finished product.
Interpersonal skills are also crucial looking outward, when dealing with clients, investors, and partners. Hiring managers are especially sensitive to a candidate’s people skills for roles such as sales, account management, and customer support.
Below are the three major interpersonal skills you need to succeed in any job: Communication, Teamwork, and Leadership.
Communication is all about our ability to clearly convey both content and feeling to others, and clearly understand others when they speak with us. The Sender / Receiver Model is a good way to think about effective communication.
When you are sending information (ie talking, composing an email, making a presentation), focus on formatting your message in a way that is most likely to be understood by the receiver. Are they more of an inductive or deductive thinker? Is your listener more likely to be swayed by logic, feeling, or appeals to authority (logos, pathos, or ethos)? The more you know about a receiver’s history, cultural context, and current mental and emotional state, the more you can tailor your message for maximum impact.
When you are receiving (ie listening) , the roles are reversed, and the more you know about the sender the easier it will be to correctly interpret their message. Is the sender’s intention primarily to inform, educate, inspire, or motivate? Do your best to approach the interaction with empathy, and try to understand the speaker on their own terms.
A communication loop is closed when the receiver provides feedback that they have heard and understood the sender’s message. This can be a verbal affirmation, email reply, or simple non-verbal signals like a head nod or thumbs up! Active listening techniques are also a great way to make sure the sender feels valued and respected. You may ask clarifying questions, restate what the speaker has said in your own words, and give reflections from your own experience.
Try as we might, miscommunications are bound to happen. Messages get garbled in transmission or misinterpreted, and when two parties have differing ideas of what was communicated, tension arises. The best way to resolve these conflicts is to get back on the same page. Without laying blame, do your best to understand the perspective of the other person. What was their version of events? What do they believe has been said, regardless of what you heard? The more you can approach the other person with a curious and open mind, the more productive the conversation will be.
And when it is your turn to talk, be sure to own your own experience. Use “I” phrases, focusing on what you heard and felt, not on what the other person did or failed to do. Many times, conflicts dissolve on their own once we realize that the other person is not trying to attack us, but simply has a different point of view.
Teamwork is applying interpersonal skills to groups of your peers. The Team is the unit where the majority of work occurs. According to research conducted by Google, psychological safety is the most important predictor of team effectiveness.
According to Amy Edmonson, the Harvard professor who coined the term, psychological safety is “a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking.” This means that people are able to try new things and make mistakes without their peers holding it against them, which leads to more experimentation and innovation.
Edmonson recommends a few ways that you can foster psychological safety on your team:
Frame the work as a learning problem, not an execution problem
Acknowledge your own fallibility
Model curiosity and ask lots of questions
Most employers want to either see evidence of past leadership on your resume, or qualities that demonstrate you will be able to grow into a leadership role in the future. Leadership means making difficult decisions in uncertain conditions, being willing to stick your neck out for the good of the team, and mentoring others.
Leaders are often called upon to resolve conflicts among employees. As a manager, your job is to facilitate an understanding between the two parties in conflict. Give each person space to explain their point of view, and allow the other person to ask clarifying questions. If you notice one or the other party laying blame or making personal attacks, step in to and help guide the person back to owning their own experience. For most people, feeling heard and understood is the lion’s share of the work involved in reducing interpersonal tensions.
A good leader must also know how to deliver critical feedback. Many will avoid these awkward conversations until the annual performance review, but regular feedback is crucial for your employees to know when they are off track. The key thing is to make it clear that you are on the same side and you fully support them. Instead of a confrontational indictment or punishment, critical feedback should be approached as a collaborative process. Invite the employee into the process of identifying weaknesses and brainstorming creative ways to improve. The best leaders are trusted coaches and advisors.