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Advice / Career Paths / Training & Development

How Strong Interpersonal Skills Can Help You at Work—and in Your Job Search

coworkers sitting and talking
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Have you ever truly thought about why your favorite coworkers and bosses stand out so much in your mind? What makes them so wonderful to work with—both because you get things done when you work together and because you enjoy the process? Why do you wish everyone else you encountered in the office would be a little bit more like them?

Chances are it’s all about the way you feel when you’re around them: Do they communicate clearly in person and in email? Do you feel heard, supported, and valued when you’re collaborating with them? Are they just generally easy to work with?

In short, it boils down to interpersonal skills. As a career development coach with a recruiting background, I’ve seen interpersonal skills take careers to the next level for my colleagues, my clients, and myself. And I’ve also seen a lack of those same skills hold people back.

Fortunately, you can improve your interpersonal skills with the right knowledge, techniques, and practice.

But Wait, What Exactly Are Interpersonal Skills?

You've probably heard of interpersonal skills, but the definition may seem a bit fuzzy. The word “interpersonal” on its own simply refers to anything involving interactions among people. From a business perspective, interpersonal skills are all the behaviors that allow you to work well with others, whether it’s your boss, coworkers, direct reports, clients, customers, or anyone else you come into contact with.

“Fundamentally, interpersonal skills are what we would call a ‘social skill set’ that allows you to have...meaningful relationships,” says Barbara Wright, a clinical psychologist, speech therapist, and author specializing in compassionate communication.

These skills include communication, empathy, and more.

Communication Skills

Communication is one of the most underestimated skills around. Take a moment to think back on some of the small conflicts and arguments you’ve had recently at work or outside of it. Many of them probably started with a miscommunication, a lack of communication, or some other communication snag.

Effective communication includes the ability to get your point across clearly and efficiently when speaking to colleagues. You need to be able to explain your thoughts while also using the appropriate body language and nonverbal cues for the situation. Don’t forget about written communication as well, including writing precisely and succinctly in email and elsewhere and responding to messages with relevant information in a timely manner.

Emotional Intelligence and Empathy

The true cornerstone of your interpersonal skills is your emotional intelligence, or your ability to understand, handle, and express your own emotions along with your capacity to read people and empathize with them.

“Observe your own level of emotion, anxiety, and vulnerability and become comfortable with it,” Wright says. “It’s about knowing it’s OK to be vulnerable. Take a breath and use it to connect. Friendship is based on vulnerability. In our vulnerability we bond. Emotional intelligence is seeing the vulnerability in ourselves and learning to work with it and seeing the vulnerability in others with compassion.”

When you interact with a colleague, put yourself in the other person’s shoes. Use their words and their nonverbal cues to identify how they’re feeling and try to understand why they feel that way. When you can see a situation from someone else’s perspective, it’s much easier to take the next crucial step: treating them with empathy and compassion.

Additional Interpersonal Skills

Communication, emotional intelligence, and empathy are the most essential building blocks of interpersonal skills, but they don’t act alone. There are other important skills you need as well, such as:

  • Persuasion
  • Conflict Management
  • Conflict Resolution
  • Curiosity
  • Dependability
  • Flexibility
  • Leadership
  • Listening
  • Motivation
  • Negotiation
  • Patience
  • Positivity
  • Self-Awareness
  • Sympathy
  • Tact
  • Teamwork
  • Trust

Why Are Interpersonal Skills So Important for Your Career?

It doesn’t matter where you work or what your job may be. Your interpersonal skills will impact the way your career progresses. If you have strong interpersonal skills, your team will function better together and you will all accomplish more.

As the years go by and you rack up these accomplishments, you’re also more likely to be promoted and recommended for opportunities when people work productively with you and enjoy the process. Think about it this way: Wouldn’t you enthusiastically endorse those favorite colleagues of yours and talk them up if you had the chance? I’d bet that’s not only because they have the technical skills to do the job, but also because of their interpersonal skills.

“Why do we like some people and not others? It’s all about how they interact with us,” says Tchiki Davis, founder of the Berkeley Well-Being Institute. “When someone has interpersonal skills, we can’t help but like them and want to work with them.”

Obviously, people wanting to work with you and telling others they’d like working with you too will take you far in your career.

How Can You Improve Your Interpersonal Skills?

Good news! You don't have to be an extrovert or a “people person” to have good interpersonal skills, which go way deeper than being charming at a networking event. You can develop these the same way you do any other skills, and you can start right away with these tips.

1. Look for Ways to Increase Your Confidence

Confidence is a powerful asset when it comes to interpersonal skills. A healthy balance between confidence and humility allows you to hold your head high, rather than approaching conversations looking shy and uneasy. If you’re uncomfortable, the person you’re speaking with will be uncomfortable too. On top of this, confidence makes it easier for you to express your ideas in any meeting or collaborative setting. Feeling confident even allows you to be more adept at other interpersonal skills like negotiation, conflict resolution, constructive criticism, and trust.

“The best way to be confident is to know what you’re talking about,” Wright says. In a conversation, “that means you’ve really listened to the other person versus sitting in anticipation to add your two that when you respond it’s authentic to the conversation versus aggrandizing,” she explains. “Now they have confidence in you because they know you really heard them.”

To further boost your confidence, you can also take time to jot down some of your strengths. Keep the list handy and look over it from time to time, especially before a big meeting, to remind yourself of all you have to offer.

2. Ask for Feedback

If you want to know how others feel when you interact with them, no one knows that better than the people you interact with.

“I highly recommend having conversations with those closest to you, and maybe even your current boss or manager,” says Maggie O’Connor, founder of the Atlanta and Chattanooga chapters of CULTURE LABx. Don't be afraid to ask for and receive feedback. “It's as simple as, ‘Hey, I'm really trying to improve on my interpersonal skills. How did you perceive me when we first met? How do you normally feel when we interact? Do you think I listen well? Is there anything I could do to improve?’"

Then, crucially, listen openly to that feedback and welcome it as a way for you to help yourself. Take in what they’re saying and use it to identify areas and plans for improvement.

3. Listen and Ask Thoughtful Questions

One of the most common mistakes with communication is spending too much time speaking and too little time listening. Learning to be more selfless in a conversation begins with truly and actively listening, asking questions, and listening some more.

It calls for focus and concentration. “Listening is complex because you listen with your ears but you also listen with your eyes. You observe how info is given—tone, comfort level, and delivery. It’s a multi-sensorial experience,” Wright says. “Practicing good listening skills is waiting for the pause that tells you if the other person has finished their thoughts.”

It also means giving people your full attention when they’re talking to you, actively listening, and consciously asking thoughtful questions. You can even start small by asking people about their plans for the weekend. Listen and follow up next week about how that picnic or visit to see their family went. By listening intently and following up, you’ll signal that you’re engaged. Before long, this will all become a natural part of your communication.

4. Spend More Time Putting Yourself in Others’ Shoes

Seeing situations from another person’s perspective is at the core of emotional intelligence and interpersonal interactions. When you speak with others, don’t react too quickly. Instead, take a beat to imagine how things look to them.

Ask yourself why they might want to do things a certain way and what their underlying goals are. If something seems to be making them upset, try to understand why and what you could do to help. This simple step will help you empathize with people and have more productive conversations.

It's important to treat every conversation and person as a unique individual. “Think about very successful coaches,” O’Connor says. “Throughout their careers, they have had to work with varying personalities, yet their success remains. I'd like to think a big contributing factor to that overall success is a) understanding their own interpersonal skills and b) adapting their interpersonal skills to each player's specific personality.”

5. Take a Class

Just like with other skills, there are experts who can help you hone your interpersonal skills. If you learn better in person, see if there are any relevant courses at the adult education centers or universities and colleges in your area (many offer continuing education courses for folks in the community).

For more options, the internet is full of webinars and online courses designed to enhance your interpersonal skills. You can start with this list.

How Do You Demonstrate Your Interpersonal Skills in the Job Search?

As you continue your efforts to improve your interpersonal skills, you can also use them to make your job search smoother and more successful. Here’s how:

1. Use Your Professional Network

Your professional network is one of your best assets, so it’s smart to constantly grow and nourish your connections.

And during a job search, it’s time to put your network to work. Think back to former colleagues and supervisors you had strong working relationships with. Reach out to them to let them know you’re looking for your next step and ask them to keep their eyes open for you. Chances are if they loved working with you, they’ll be more than happy to help you in your search.

These are also great people to ask for LinkedIn recommendations, recommendation letters, and references. Your interpersonal skills can be the key to standing out among other candidates, so you’ll want to pick folks who will champion you based on those in addition to your hard skills.

2. Highlight Interpersonal Skills in Your Resume and Cover Letter

As helpful as it is to have references and connections who can speak to your interpersonal skills, you can’t rely on them exclusively. Since references tend to come toward the end of the hiring process and you won’t have connections at every company you apply to, you’ll need to demonstrate your strengths in other ways.

There are plenty of ways to show these skills in your resume and cover letter to help you make a great first impression. For example, add bullets on your resume for each job that illustrate how you put your interpersonal skills to work. This could include accomplishments like, “Led a team of six associates, resulting in two promotions over the course of a year,” or, “Communicated across product and engineering teams as an informal liaison, increasing the rate of on-time and on-budget projects by 15%.”

In your cover letter, you’ll have the chance to show off your written communication skills. But in addition to the writing itself, you can talk about experiences that demonstrate interpersonal skills crucial to the role you’re applying for. If you’re seeking a sales role, for example, you might mention that “In my current role I put a big focus on building relationships. In fact, in the past year I’ve added more than 30 new clients to the company portfolio and helped retain eight accounts flagged as at risk for churn.”

3. Bring Your Interpersonal Skills to Your Interview

As nervous as you may be before an interview, remember that your interpersonal skills matter. Make sure you’re going through your mental checklist: Don’t forget to actively listen and show interest. Be sure to communicate clearly and confidently. Tell stories that show off your skills.

In addition to being positive and personable during the interview, you’ll need your interpersonal skills to prepare for the moment when they ask, “Do you have any questions for me?” As you listen and observe your interviewer’s cues, you’ll be able to think up questions that will show your engagement while also giving you valuable information for your own use. It might be something like, “I can tell from your questions that you place a large emphasis on [a particular skill or task]. How do you see that coming into play in the next several months?”

If you’re making some kind of change or pivot, you can also talk about how your interpersonal skills are transferable. It certainly helped me when I was nearing my college graduation. I’d gotten my degree in journalism, but was looking for roles in sales. As I interviewed, I knew I’d need to rely on my interpersonal skills to convince a company to give me a shot.

I started by putting myself in the hiring manager’s shoes to understand why they’d be hesitant to bring me in. From there I laid out a plan to show off the skills I’d picked up from majoring in journalism, including the communication, relationship-building, and listening skills I’d developed interviewing subjects for coursework and stories—all of which helped prepare me for a career in sales. And it worked! I landed a sales job and got my foot in the door.

No matter what you do for a living, interacting with coworkers, bosses, and clients is essential, and interpersonal skills are crucial to your success. And whether you realize it or not, employers are looking for interpersonal skills, so make sure you take them just as seriously as you do your technical skills.

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