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7 Key Interpersonal Communication Skills (with practical tips for improvement)

A survey by The State of St Louis Community College Workforce Group found that more than 60%of employers say job applicants lack communication and interpersonal skills. Are you struggling with developing strong interpersonal communication skills to get ahead in the workplace?

Like it or not, interpersonal communication skills are vital to your job satisfaction and business success.

This guide walks you through the basics of interpersonal communication with practical tips to improve the most important interpersonal skills you need to succeed in work and in life.

What are interpersonal communication skills?

Interpersonal communication skills are ‘soft skills’ we use every day when we interact with other people. They include a wide range of communication skills and the ability to manage your emotions (high emotional quotient or EQ).

Importance of interpersonal communication skills

Your career success in the workplace today depends on the quality of your people skills – Max Messmer (Managing your Career for Dummies)

  1. Better employability and career prospects. Employers actively look for job candidates who have skills such as effective communication, leadership potential and strong work ethics.
  2. Ability to influence others. Connected employees who feel engaged at work improves productivity by 20-25%. Unfortunately, only 34% of employees in the U.S feel engaged at work.
  3. Formation of important contacts and maintenance of existing relationships. A good network will not only improve your engagement and commitment to your company, it will also open doors to career advancement and business opportunities.
  4. Enable effective teamwork. Those who are good team players are often given more responsibilities and considered more often for promotions.
  5. Improves customer satisfaction. This study found that customer satisfaction was increased by administration staff showing increased empathy. Customer retention rates were 18% higher when employees were highly engaged.

Key interpersonal communication skills and practical tips on how to improve

The most basic of all human needs is the need to understand and be understood – Ralph Nichols

We all already have interpersonal communication skills which we have been developing since childhood. Some of our ingrained skills contribute to strong interpersonal skills but others can be detrimental to good communication.

All is not lost. As with other skills such as business writing skills, interpersonal communication skills can be developed and improved on with consistent practice.

I divide interpersonal communication skills into two categories; basic communication skills and advanced interpersonal skills. Here is a list of the most important skills and how you can improve them.

Basic Communication Skills

Verbal communication

It’s not what you say, it’s what people hear – Frank Luntz

The main purpose of verbal communication is the exchange of ideas between two or more people. Verbal communication is not just about using words, but also how you say those words. Your tone, pitch, rate of speech and various other factors influence how your message is received.

Practical tips on improving your verbal communication

  1. Think before you speak. Plan how you want to convey your message if possible so that you can tailor your speech to your audience. For example, if you were speaking to a non-technical administration staff member, avoid technical jargon. The world’s smartest speakers speak at around a seventh-grade level, with simple words and short sentences.
  2. Focus on clarity. Use clear, simple language and enunciate your words properly. This article lists some enunciation exercises.
  3. Don’t assume your listener knows what you are talking about. Just because you have a deep knowledge of a topic doesn’t mean the person you are speaking to have the same level of knowledge as you do.
  4. Incorporate other communication and interpersonal skills such as active listening, body language and empathy into your conversation.

Julian Treasure, a sound and communication expert, shares some tips on how you can speak so that people want to listen.

Body language

In the book Silent Messages, Albert Mehrabian quantified that body language accounts for 55% of personal communication. Our posture, mannerisms, eye contact and other body language are ways we consciously or subconsciously communicate with others.

Practical tips on using body language to communicate better

  1. Display open body language such as a relaxed posture, good eye contact, uncrossed arms and smiling.
  2. Consciously use body language to reinforce your message. For example, if you want to appear confident, stand firmly with your shoulders back.
  3. Perfect your professional handshake. 
  4. Be authentic. Some say you can lie in any language, even body language. However, people are much better at reading non-verbal communication cues than you think. So match your non-verbal behaviour to your true self.
  5. Learn how to interpret non-verbal signals from others. Be perceptive of what other people are saying with their body language, especially if their words and their non-verbal cues don’t match.

Active listening

One of the most sincere forms of respect is actually listening to what another has to say – Bryant H. McGill

Active listening isn’t just hearing the words being spoken, it is understanding the message left unsaid.

Unfortunately, a lot of the time, the ‘listener’ in a conversation isn’t actually actively listening but instead is thinking about what they are going to say next.

Practical tips on active listening

  1. Pay full attention. Give the speaker your complete attention rather than trying to think of your response while they are talking. Once they are done, take the time to analyze what they just said and answer thoughtfully.
  2. Have an open mind. Listen to what is being said rather than hearing what you expect to hear. Don’t assume you are right and they are wrong.
  3. Clarify your understanding. Reflect on what was said and ask questions to confirm your understanding if needed. Summarize or paraphrase what was just said to ensure there is no misunderstanding.
  4. Don’t interrupt or redirect the conversation. There are certain situations where you will need to do this. We will delve into how you can interrupt tactfully in another article.
  5. Acknowledge by a nod or appropriate remark, ask questions to show your interest in what the other person is saying.

Advanced interpersonal skills

Leadership skills

There are various leadership styles such as autocratic style, democratic leadership, coaching style and strategic leadership but the best leadership style is one that creates trust.

This study found  managers were expected to be effective in interpersonal communication and have a leadership style that engenders trust but these skills were the ones found most lacking.

In fact, according to the American Psychological Association’s survey in 2014, 1 in 4 workers said they don’t trust their employer and only half believed their employer was upfront with them.

Practical tips to improve your leadership skills

  1. Find out what sort of leader you are by taking this quick quiz by Skills You Need
  2. Trust your team. If you want your team to trust you, then you have to lead by example – trust your team by delegating work.
  3. Appeal to your team’s values. Ensure your values unify your team, not divide it. Find out what is important for your team members and turn it into a driving force for motivation.
  4. Be transparent. The more open and honest you are with your team, the more you encourage your team members to be truthful, especially with owning up to mistakes.
  5. Be a good example. People respect someone who ‘walks the walk’.
  6. Admit failure. Even the most powerful leaders make mistakes. It takes courage and strength of character to admit failure but it send a powerful message to your team that you will lead well even when you make a mistake.

Strong work ethics

Work ethics is a set of values based on the principles of discipline and hard work, manifested by a dedication towards your job.

Strong work ethics include:

  • dependability
  • dedication
  • discipline
  • productivity
  • cooperation
  • integrity
  • responsibility
  • professionalism
  • mutual respect

Practical tips to demonstrating strong work ethics

  1. Act with integrity. Do the right thing at all times, even when you think no one is watching. Integrity is the most important element to forge trust.
  2. Go above and beyond what is expected of you. Don’t just do the bare minimum to get by. Use your skills and creativity to come up with results that surpass expectations.
  3.  Be respectful to everyone. There should be no excuse to be rude to other people. Stay calm even in stressful situations and show fair treatment to everyone.
  4.  Show up every day. Show you are reliable and dependable consistently for your boss and colleagues to trust you with important tasks.

Empathy

Empathy is the ability to ‘put yourself in others’ shoes’. Leaders who understand the needs and feelings of their team members create a positive, high-functioning team.

Employees and colleagues alike will respect and trust you more if you are able to show empathy and express compassion.

Practical tips for showing empathy

  1. Seek opinions from others. Let others express themselves without jumping to conclusions or criticizing them for being ‘wrong’ just because they have a different opinion to yours.
  2. Be perceptive of others. Being conscious of how other people are responding to you helps you understand and interact better with them.
  3. Work on your emotional intelligence. Emotional intelligence encompasses self-awareness, emotion regulation, empathy and relationship building.

Conflict resolution (mediation) skills

Conflict is normal in the workplace. By forming a plan with those involved, you help them move forward and manage their issues. Read How to Productively Deal with Difficult People at Work to learn more.

Leaders who can negotiate and resolve conflict are respected and trusted by their team.

Practical tips for effective conflict resolution

  1. Identify the root of the problem. The underlying source of the issue is often stress, misunderstandings and differences of opinion. Uncovering the root cause of the issue helps determine the path forward.
  2. Practice active listening to find the ‘real problem’.
  3. Focus on what is right, not who is right. Refrain from placing blame but instead, focus on solution-seeking.
  4. Be impartial. Don’t take sides. assess the situation objectively and come up with a fair solution.

These are some of the key interpersonal communication skills I think are most important to advance in the workplace.

How do you know which interpersonal communication skill should you work on first? This self-assessment by Skills You Need may give you an idea of which areas to develop first.

What affects your interpersonal communication skills?

  1. Previous communication encounters shape how we communicate. Continued practice and experience evolve our communication style.
  2. Preconceived notions of others (stereotyping).  Stereotyping causes us to assume we know what others are thinking or how they are likely to behave. We can also assume we know the outcome of the conversation. This affects not just our words but also our tone of voice and body language when conversing.
  3. Physical barriers like being unable to hear or see properly as well as language difficulties.
  4. Emotional barriers. Most people can’t communicate well when they they are struggling with controlling their emotions.

Final thoughts

It is surprising how little training we receive for interpersonal communication skills or ‘soft skills’ in the workplace. Now that you are armed with some practical tips to start your journey to develop good interpersonal skills, continue working on it and practice, practice, practice to improve.

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