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Interpersonal skills training: 5 lessons for building people skills

From active listening to giving feedback, these five capabilities are integral to interpersonal skills training.
Interpersonal skills training
Credit: Elena Poritskaya; Ricardo Gomez / Unsplash

There are plenty of reasons why interpersonal skills training should be a top priority for learning and development, but one of the biggest is what’s at stake without it. Interpersonal skills are essential to customer service performance and sales outcomes, which directly impact an organization’s bottom line.  

A lack of interpersonal skills in the workforce can negatively impact corporate culture, morale, and collaboration. This results in less engaged employees, which can lead to higher turnover.

Interpersonal skills training for employees

If the above reasons weren’t convincing enough, a survey cited by Harvard Business Review found that 69% of managers are uncomfortable communicating with employees, particularly “giving clear directions, crediting others with having good ideas, speaking face to face, and having difficult feedback conversations in general.” 

It’s no surprise that a common question among L&D teams is how to improve interpersonal skills in the workplace. Below, we’ll share five lessons organizations can offer their employees, from active listening to giving feedback.

Explore Emotional Intelligence | Daniel Goleman

Instruction on emotional intelligence should play an integral role in any interpersonal skills training program. Daniel Goleman has said, “The good news about emotional intelligence is it’s learned and learnable, and you can upgrade it at any point in life if you’re motivated.” 

Goleman is an internationally recognized psychologist and best-selling author. In his Big Think+ class, Explore Emotional Intelligence, he explains the four components of EQ: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, and relationship management.

Emotional intelligence is a key distinguisher between average and outstanding performers.

Self-awareness is knowledge of one’s own inner state — what makes a person “tick” and what their own emotional needs are. Self-management refers to the way a person regulates that inner state based on an understanding of how it influences their behavior. 

Social awareness is understanding the emotional needs of others and being empathetic toward them. Relationship management involves adapting one’s own behavior to ensure productive and mutually satisfying interactions with others. 

Watch a clip from the class below. 

According to Goleman, emotional intelligence is a key distinguisher between average and outstanding performers. Not having access to training resources on these critical skills can be career limiting, especially to employees who have leadership potential but find one-on-one interactions with colleagues difficult.

Building Relationships Through Likability | Michelle Lederman

In this class, Michelle Lederman, author of The 11 Laws of Likability, addresses an important aspect of relationship-building in the workplace — giving feedback. Lederman proposes a four-part model for “presenting feedback on a silver platter.” The four steps — ask, elaborate, empower, and collaborate — turn a conversation about a person’s work performance from a lecture into a mutually beneficial collaboration. 

Lederman encourages learners to leverage what she calls the laws of likeability. The first step leverages the Law of Curiosity and the Law of Listening. In it, the feedback-giver uses open-ended questions to start a conversation and assess the other person’s view of the situation. They then seek to understand and determine whether their own perspective is similar or different.

People remember how they felt after an interaction far more than what was said.

In the next step, “elaborate,” the feedback-giver provides factual information about the other’s performance and discusses reasons for the feedback. This involves using social awareness to adapt one’s communication style, which as discussed earlier, can be developed through interpersonal skills training.

In the “empower” stage, the feedback-giver allows the other person to identify appropriate next steps. And in the final stage, ideas are exchanged and built off of. The feedback-giver can use the Law of Similarity in this stage to build trust by comparing the situation to one of their own experiences. They should also remain aware of the Law of Mood Memory, which posits that people remember how they felt after an interaction far more than they remember what exactly was said.

Collaborate Intelligently | Angie McArthur

A lack of appreciation and respect for the different ways others think can make it difficult to collaborate. Angie McArthur, the co-founder of Professional Thinking Partners — a network of talent development consultants — and co-author of Collaborative Intelligence, lays out three cardinal rules for reconciling differences with others:

  • You can’t change another person’s perspective, but you can value differences.
  • You can’t make another person respect you, but you can grow how you respect yourself, and treat them with respect.
  • You can’t change another person, but you can grow in how you relate to them.

In her Big Think+ class, McArthur explains that people have different ways of viewing the world and communicating. Watch the clip below for a few examples.

Understanding what is important to others allows one to communicate in a way that bridges differences and enables cooperation. These are all skills that can be developed through interpersonal skills training. 

Set Up Difficult Conversations For Success | Esther Perel

Everyone eventually experiences contentious conversations with people who disagree with them in the workplace. Learning how to navigate these conversations is typically a component of interpersonal skills training. When handled well, these conversations can actually increase understanding and deepen relationships.

In this lesson, Esther Perel, psychotherapist and author of The State of Affairs, offers ways to intensify understanding and de-intensify conflict. Perel helps learners prevent conversations from becoming circular arguments rather than productive discussions.  

Expectations of ourselves and others act as filters that influence what we see and hear.

The problem, according to Perel, is that expectations of ourselves and others act as filters that influence what we see and hear. Expectations also lead to assumptions about the words and behaviors of others. The solution? Set aside one’s assumptions about the other party and ascribe no motivations to their words and behaviors. 

Perel advises to take in what they have to say, give it due consideration, and respond in a way that shows understanding and makes others feel like they matter. This dials down conflict and can pave the way for resolution. 

Moving Relationships Forward | Todd Davis

According to Todd Davis, Chief People Officer at Franklin Covey and author of Get Better, “the most successful, influential people listen with the intent to understand.” This involves asking clarifying, non-invasive questions in discussions with others, such as “Am I correct in understanding that…?” or “Can you give me an example?”

The most successful, influential people listen with the intent to understand.

Todd Davis

In his Big Think+ class, Moving Relationships Forward, Davis highlights the importance of reflective listening, which gives a person the psychological air to let their emotions breathe and be heard without judgment, interference, agreement, or disagreement. This is a skill many are aware of, but is difficult to master without interpersonal skills training. 

Davis also emphasizes that personal reflection and self-examination are necessary to building interpersonal skills. For example, taking an inventory of one’s relationship skills can help to identify the root causes of relationship successes and failures. 

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Final note

This list of competencies is by no means comprehensive. In addition to these five, interpersonal skills training can include instruction on empathy, inclusivity, intercultural communication, and more. While some of these skills may come naturally more to some than others, they can certainly be developed over time with the right tools and resources. 

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