People tend to spend a majority of time in a job search and in their careers focusing on hard skills that qualify them for certain titles or positions. Hard skills are those technical skills, such as data analytics or coding or technical writing, that we usually acquire through school, on-the-job experience, and specific training.
While hard skills are important and will help in landing an interview or completing daily work tasks, the often-overlooked soft skills are equally, if not even more, important.
Soft skills include interpersonal skills—all the qualities and behaviors a person needs to communicate within the workplace and be successful collaborating with others to perform well in their position.
What are interpersonal skills?
Interpersonal skills are the behaviors or tactics a person uses to communicate and collaborate. In the workplace, they’re often cited as an employee’s ability to work well with others, and they include verbal and nonverbal communication as well as written skills. Empathy, assertiveness, professionalism, eye contact, analysis—these are all examples of interpersonal skills, but there are many, many more, which we’ll discuss below.
Why do I need interpersonal skills?
In a 2016 survey, 93 percent of employers said that soft skills were either essential or a very important factor in hiring decisions, and according to the GMAC Corporate Recruiters Survey, which surveyed nearly 1,000 employers recruiting recent MBAs, communication and teamwork, both interpersonal skills, are the most important skills when hiring candidates for mid-level positions.
Of the survey’s top skill breakdown, highlights included oral communication, listening skills, written communication, presentation skills, adaptability, valuing others’ opinions, ability to follow a leader, and cross-cultural sensitivity. Those are all extremely hireable strengths to have.
But interpersonal skills carry weight beyond the initial interview.
Cynthia Pong, a feminist career strategist whose advice specifically centers on women of color, says interpersonal skills are crucial to navigating the workforce and your career. “No matter what kind of work we do, it is inevitably going to involve interacting with other people, so we need to make sure that we’re able to work well with others,” she says.
There’s also the issue of advancing in the workplace. Not as much can be done through merit and hard-won talent as you might think. “Other people tend to be gatekeepers for certain things in your career,” Pong says. “If you work within an organization, other people are going to decide if you get a promotion, if you get a raise, a title change, opportunities. And even if you work for yourself, you need access to opportunities and good relationships with your colleagues. So, in whatever your work community is, you’re going to need to have interpersonal skills.”
Understanding human behavior and fostering relationships at work makes you relatable and helps build trust among your coworkers and executives within the company.
The most valuable interpersonal skills & how to use them
The importance of certain interpersonal skills will vary by job, company, and industry, but Pong says there are four skills she considers to be the most valuable in any environment. You’ll recognize some crossover in her favorites with the GMAC survey:
Leadership: You have the ability to galvanize and motivate other people, to show initiative, which generates support from others.
Teamwork: You’re able to work well and collaborate and be a valuable team member.
Public speaking: You show authority and confidence in a high-pressure situation, which tends to garner admiration.
Problem solving: You’re able to think critically, which is at the core of a lot of the work we all do.
She also adds that some “sleeper” skills are underrated, but incredibly impactful in the workplace:
The way in which you conduct yourself when things go wrong says a lot about who you are as a person. Are you reactive and defensive? Do you immediately look to blame someone else? Do you carefully listen to what’s being said and try to get to the root of the issue?
Each conflict at work requires a unique management approach, and according to the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument, there are five options to choose from: competing, collaborating, compromising, avoiding, or accommodating.
“People who are able to mediate conflict and are not afraid of it are going to do really well,” Pong says, adding that women tend to shy away from conflict because they associate it with repercussions or “bringing the hammer down.” However, she argues that, “If you’re always afraid of conflict, you’re not going to speak up for yourself.”
Want to develop this skill? We got you:
Boost Your Conflict Management Style (with a Little Help from the Office)
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Many people can read and write, but having expert communication skills is more complex than you’d think. In times of high stress or conflict, it’s easy for messaging to go awry. Crisis communication consultants exist for that very reason.
But in terms of day-to-day communication, the ability to share information with your team and understand verbal and nonverbal cues from others can help projects run more smoothly, ease tensions between team members, and give you a leg up in understanding and overcoming office politics. Pong says communication skills such as active listening, nonverbal communication skills, and patience are all areas where women of color, specifically, tend to thrive: “We’ve taught ourselves to read situations out of necessity. That’s something that’s both underrated and really crucial to a healthy workplace.”
Caring and empathy, too, are communication skills Pong says are characteristic of employees who excel. Relating to others or putting yourself in their shoes is a way of connecting while also fostering more expansive worldviews on your team.
Not only is listening a sign of respect, but it also helps you better understand where people are coming from and the way they think through problems. Listening carefully can lead to more work efficiency, less time spent re-doing tasks, and eliminate the need for multiple conversations on the same topic.
Plus, Pong says, it’s helpful in fostering an inclusive work environment. “Listening is crucial because part of building an inclusive work space is making space for people who are often excluded,” she says. To use it effectively for this purpose though, “You have to make sure conditions are right for people to feel safe to express themselves. Invite them in a non-pressured and genuine way to speak or speak up, actually listen, and then respond so that they know that you heard them and understood them.”
Pong says listening is a good skill to work on improving. She likes to use the acronym W.A.I.T., which she learned at a conference, as a self-reminder to practice listening. It stands for Why Am I Still Talking. She also says these steps are key:
Practice holding silence.
Slow down—meditation and mindfulness can help with that.
Remind yourself to speak less and listen to the other person more. (W.A.I.T.)
Make an effort to understand the other person’s point of view.
Depersonalize when asking for feedback or during conflict resolution.
Innovation is a skill closely tied to business metrics, and it’s rooted in curiosity. Although it’s wonderful to be curious about your coworkers (try these 99 icebreaker questions to flex those communication skills again), curiosity about ways to improve technology or process is much more marketable. It also lends itself to problem solving, which, if you remember, Pong named as one of her top-four interpersonal skills.
Follow up and accountability
Your team wants to know they can rely on you to get your work done, but it’s much easier to say you’ll do something than to actually get it done, and that’s why follow up and accountability are highly prized in the workplace.
“A lot of people overcommit to things, and they’re unable to follow through,” Pong says. “That can have really bad consequences for your work and reputation. If there was one area where I’d love to see people improve upon, it would be that.”
Pong says this is a skill that requires you to get to know yourself. “The first thing is to realize that this is a struggle for you,” she says. “One way you can find out—and this is a little bit extra—is to send an anonymous Google survey to some people to ask what they think about your dependability skills.”
Then, set digital or visual reminders for yourself, and experiment with communicating more rather than less. “Tell people you work with‘I’m working on remembering these things better. Can you help me? If you don’t hear from me by this time, can you please nudge me?’” Pong says. Even this step can move mountains in improving how others perceive your dependability.
7 more highly valued interpersonal skills to practice at work to grow your career
It’s essential to take some time to reflect on your own feelings and unique character traits to develop a sense of self-awareness.
Self-examination can help you to understand the circumstances that make you happy or sad, how you react to stress of confrontation, what gives you energy and what depletes you, how you handle lazy coworkers or favoritism, the types of people you connect best with, or how you most successfully handle problems.
So the next time something stressful, you can catch yourself before you react negatively. The next time you’re praised for good work, you can remember to give some credit to the team that helped you.
Who would you want to align yourself with, someone who meekly agrees with the majority and perpetuates the status quo, or someone who stands up and voices their opinion with confidence and compassion? Confidence shows that you know your self-worth and understand your own capabilities.
In the workplace, confidence heightens others’ opinions of you and gives your ideas a greater chance of being heard, allowing for more growth in your career.
Confidence can be tough to develop. You can begin by seeking out tasks where you succeed or feel empowered, or sit down and make a list of your skills, accomplishments, and positive character traits.
3. A good attitude
Attitudes are contagious, especially when you work closely with the same coworkers every day. No matter how you are feeling on a given day, it is important to foster and maintain a good attitude in the workplace. This doesn’t mean you need to develop an air of sunshine and good vibes if that’s not within your personality, but it does mean choosing not to complain about circumstances and instead working through the challenge and it does mean encouraging your coworkers.
A great attitude demonstrates the capacity for good leadership and shows that you’re grateful for your position and are putting in your best effort. Most likely your coworkers, and especially your boss, will catch on to your optimism and want to follow your lead.
Read more: I Learned How to Be Happy at Work
4. The ability to develop and manage relationships
It doesn’t take much effort to say good morning or ask a coworker to join you for lunch. These small acts can go a long way in developing relationships and building trust with colleagues.
Striking up healthy relationships with your coworkers beyond just work matters is important for developing your network, creating allies in the office, lifting morale, and getting really good work done. You can start with some simple office chatter about the weekend or a colleague’s upcoming vacation. Ask about your officemate’s kids or ask them if they’d like to run across the street for a coffee.
When we’re under stress, our basic manners can slip. You can work on this interpersonal skill with the simple practice of saying please and thank you. Remember to be conscious of others’ time, their needs and their schedules. Treat the desk receptionist with the same level of respect as you would the CEO.
Respect also entails awareness of how your emotions come off through your body language and actions. Don’t roll your eyes, don’t interrupt colleagues, don’t show up late to meetings, don’t pass the buck.
Cooperation is about working together for a common goal, not furthering your own personal agenda.
No matter what job or field you find yourself in, you will inevitably have to work in a team or collaborate with others at some point, sometimes all day, every day. Cooperating with others and exhibiting understanding for the ideas of those around you is an excellent interpersonal skill to develop and shows potential for leadership.
If you can’t work within a group, it is unlikely you will find yourself moving forward in a career, despite exceptional skills in other areas.
How to show off your interpersonal skills on your resume & during the interview
Unlike technical skills, it’s hard to convey to employers your achieved level of interpersonal skills, since there are no tests to assess these kinds of qualities, no certifications or licenses to list.
To add these skills to your resume or cover letter, Pong says to use one or a few of these methods:
Write a career summary
“Everyone should have a career summary or an executive summary at the top of their resume,” Pong says. “That is prime real estate.” A career summary with good, interpersonal descriptors sounds like this: Effective leader adept at problem-solving and conflict resolution especially in the context of health care administration.
Tailor your application
“Look at what the people are saying they’re looking for in the job description so you know what keywords to use and you know what interpersonal skills to emphasize. The resume and cover letter should be different for every job,” Pong says.
Add core competencies
“This is another area you can put right at the top under the summary. Include three to five, at most six, core competencies. So you can just literally put the skills up there. Active listening or deep listening. Conflict resolution. Public speaking. Anything.”
Mention interpersonal skills throughout your resume.
Include examples of how you’ve showcased those interpersonal skills, but be sure to show, not tell. Provide specific examples of how you applied those skills for a positive outcome:
- Collaborated with a large team to successfully meet client deadlines, typically ahead of schedule by at least three days
Effectively managed conflict between creative and business departments to create products that delivered 20 percent more revenue for the company
Managed and led a team of four people by building trust and establishing ongoing relationships to work toward a mutual goal
Created an office-wide initiative to decrease our carbon footprint. Turned a reluctant group of three into an enthusiastic team of 20
Then, during an interview, Pong says to ask the interviewer what they’re looking for first. Try these questions:
What do you think are the most important skills for successful candidates?
What are you looking for in candidates?
What makes somebody successful when they have this particular position?
Answer by speaking to the interpersonal skills they just mentioned, but back up your claims by elaborating on concrete examples that show you’re strong in those skills. “Without backup examples you could be saying stuff that people don’t know is true,” Pong says. No one wants that.
About our source
Cynthia Pong, JD, is a feminist career strategist, speaker, and author of Don't Stay in Your Lane: The Career Change Guide for Women of Color (forthcoming Summer 2020). A LinkedIn Top Voice for Job Search and Career, she is frequently sought out to provide highly relevant, super applicable, easy-to-understand career advice specifically for women of color.