What Are Interpersonal Skills? And How to Strengthen Them
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Interpersonal skills are important in work, school, and life. Learn how to strengthen yours.
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—it 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 .
What are interpersonal skills?
Interpersonal skills fall under the soft skills umbrella. 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:
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Most people already possess many of these in some capacity—even introverted individuals, who may become drained from too much social interaction, yet are observant, intuitive, and adept when interacting with others. However, there is always room for improvement. Developing self-awareness and an openness to learning is an excellent first step to strengthening your interpersonal skills.
Learn more: Hard Skills vs. Soft Skills: What’s the Difference?
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How to strengthen your interpersonal skills
Continuous pursuit of self-improvement and confidence can benefit your personal and professional relationships, and knowing your strengths and weaknesses regarding social interactions can help you determine which skills you want to hone. 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 recent 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. Develop an actionable plan similar to 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.”
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.”
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. Reflect on your growth.
Self-reflection is a critical part of expanding your interpersonal skills. While some discomfort is expected during growth periods, it's important to feel comfortable and confident in the way you are approaching interpersonal situations.
After enacting your action plan, notice how you feel. Positive feelings indicate that you've found a productive path for building your skills, while negative feelings can indicate that you may benefit from an alternative approach. Iterating on your action plan along the way can enable you to develop a lasting skill set.
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Using 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 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.
On your resume and cover letter
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 on your resume in 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.
In a job interview
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.
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 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.
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