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Interpersonal Skills

The following article was published in the Singapore Straits Times. 

There was a time when interpersonal skills were thought only to be for social misfits, the unbearably shy and the over-bearingly rude.

Now it is recognised that these skills are essential for all employees, whether they are handling internal or external customers, subordinates, peers or managers. Interpersonal skills are necessary for giving and receiving feedback, handling grievances and complaints, coaching and supporting, selling and negotiating and getting work done in the most efficient and effective way through other people.

The content of the training has also developed over the years to include understanding why different people behave in different ways, how to communicate effectively and what is the right time, the right place and the right message.

Most of us reckon that, except for a few minor blemishes, we are pretty alright people. We might have our occasional 'off moment', but basically our behaviour is usually acceptable and appropriate. So when we do have a difficulty with someone we conclude that it is the other person's fault and that they probably have an 'attitude problem'.

Of course, if both parties think the same way it can be hard to resolve the issue, as neither side will see any need to make the first move.

Understanding ourselves and other people

The first lesson in interpersonal skills, therefore, has to be to understand in detail what makes us, personally, tick, what we like and don't like other people doing and what causes us to get upset. It then helps if we can get inside the other person's skin, or even ask them, to find out their values too.

Many organisations are making good use of psychometric instruments to enable people to discover more about themselves.

As we learn more about different approaches from different people we can work out how best to play to their strengths rather than focus always on their weaknesses. We can understand how to lower the chances of becoming upset ourselves and of upsetting other people.

The same concept of mutual understanding also holds for selling products, services and ideas and for influencing people. A common error is to assume that everyone will like what we like and so we put forward an argument that we find persuasive and then wonder why the other person doesn't appear so impressed.

As Singapore opens its doors to ever more foreign talent, it is essential to learn more about cross-cultural differences to reduce misunderstandings. What might seem quite normal in one person's country can be downright offensive in another's. To ask if someone has taken their dinner might show concern in this country but could appear nosy elsewhere.

Cross-generational understanding is just as crucial as the values of the young can be very different from those of their parents and, increasingly, we have younger managers supervising older employees.

How to handle different people in different ways

Understanding other people is obviously only a first step and isn't much use unless we also have the skills to be able to handle different people in different ways.

The skills are both the verbal skills of getting the right words and phrases that communicate exactly what we want and the non-verbal skills that convey the body language, facial expressions and tones of voice that support the message. It helps dramatically if we can not only use these skills ourselves but also recognise them in the other person.

Try saying the phrase, "I don't like that", four different times, each time stressing a different word and see how the meaning changes. Listen to the difference in implication between, "Are you ready?" and "Are you ready, yet?"

The introduction of a slight change in tone or a very small word can affect the meaning so much that the receiver might not always get the same message as was sent by the transmitter. The tone can be caused by the thinking or the accent of someone speaking English as their second language. "Want it or not?" doesn't sound rude when said in Hokkien!

Because of these detailed subtleties many organisations are training their staff in the microskillsT of communications. This system of interpersonal skills training enables staff to handle any conversation with any person both within and outside the working environment. It is as applicable in face to face as in telephone contact and is now being developed for email and SMS communications as well.

It is used internationally and is currently being trialled in Australian schools to help senior school children become better able to handle their peers, their teachers, their parents and their potential employers. The school counsellors are using it too.

Deciding what to do

Even if we know why people behave as they do and we are able to handle them differently, we still need to make judgments on when and where to use which skills on which people and for which purpose.

Have you ever had to tell a colleague that they have a personal hygiene problem? Was the colleague grateful, embarrassed or angry? If it did go wrong, it is as likely that you misjudged the timing, the location or the values of the colleague, as it is that you were lacking in the skills of what to say.

The 'intellectual' skills occur in the brain as we decide what we want to achieve from the discussion. We then convert this to the 'interpersonal' skills of the words, body language and tones of voice to implement the decision.

The 'macro-decisions' often take place well in advance as we plan the meeting and think through how we are going to proceed. The 'micro-decisions' take place almost instantly and continuously as react to the other person's comments.

The most skilled people can decide what to say and can then communicate it effectively at both the 'macro-' and the 'micro-levels'. There is little advantage in rehearsing the opening gambit if we are unable to handle the reactions.

So, interpersonal skills training has moved on a lot over the years so that people who are highly interpersonally skilled are now considerably more productive - and happier.

Tim Russell is an international management and training consultant who conduct courses regularly with the Singapore Institute of Management.

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