When most people think of the skills they will need to get and keep a job, to advance, and to have a successful career, they tend to think in terms of knowledge that will allow them to do the job properly.  The accountant thinks of accounting skills and knowledge of tax law.  The nurse thinks of patient care, medications and procedures. The administrative assistant thinks of office skills and software; the manager thinks of time management and reporting; and the welder thinks of metals and fuels.  But evidence suggests that our focus on technical skills -no matter how good we are at using them- is overlooking an equally important indicator of success – our interpersonal skills. Without well-developed interpersonal skills, success in today’s working world is nearly impossible.

What are Interpersonal Skills?

Put most simply, “interpersonal skills” in a business environment refer to a person’s ability to get along with others while getting the job done. This includes everything from communication and listening skills to attitude, personal presence, and the way we handle ourselves with another individual, group or our ability to work as part of a team.

In order to fully appreciate this, consider how things have changed in the workplace over the years.  There was a time, for example, when mean or explosive bosses were not only viewed as the norm, but these characteristics were considered important to success (think Mad Men). Yet today, the obtuse, mean, or simply offensive boss is not only held in little esteem, but won’t likely find success at all.

Lei Han, a Stanford University engineer and Wharton School of Business MBA, says that interpersonal skills today encompass the “ability to build relationships with others to effectively understand their circumstances, communicate proposed solutions based on the current business reality, and persuade them to take action.”  She cites an example where one professional was probably in the best position to give her the best solution to a problem, but she chose to work with a different person because of the first individual’s lack of good interpersonal skills. Or to put it another way, people who are liked and respected by other people have an advantage when seeking success in today’s workplace.

This is not the same as being popular or well-liked. Popularity is one element of someone’s interpersonal skills, but popularity is not the most important element.  Rather, it is the ability (the skill) to work with all types of people, rather than just those he or she might like, that characterizes the person with good interpersonal skills.

The Communication Connection

Most experts agree that communication and listening skills are among the most important.  Unfortunately, neither one is simple nor easy. Communicating is a multi-step process that involves more than just saying what you want to say.  Though somewhat unconsciously, people go through an elaborate process when communicating.

  1. Formulating the message. This is the where you decide what you want to say (this is the part most people focus on)
  2. Considering the barriers to being able to communicate. Most people automatically compensate for noise, for example, by talking louder, but that is not the only barrier to communicating.
  3. Encoding the message. This is where he or she decides on what words to use. It’s also the point where a lot of people run into trouble. Preconceptions about what the audience knows or understands, as well as our own personal experiences, can skew our choice of words. One example is using industry or company-specific acronyms when communicating with an audience that is not familiar with the acronyms.
  4. Sending the message. This includes tone, inflection, body language and other non-verbal messages.


Similarly, for the person receiving the message there are several steps he or she goes through:

  1. The receiver has to physically hear or see the message
  2. He or she has to overcome communication barriers. This includes both external (like noise and other physical distractions) and internal barriers, (like personal attitudes, preconceptions, and assumptions). A good example is thinking about how to respond even before hearing the full statement or receiving all the information.
  3. The receiver must decode the message. He or she attempts to understand what is being said, but also “reads” those non-verbal signals.
  4. The receiver has to interpret and arrive at a conclusion about what is being said or asked for. This step also includes a person’s willingness (or lack thereof) to accept the message and, if necessary, act upon it.


While we go through several of these steps automatically in conversation, we often do not think about the actual steps. As a result, we can be surprised, hurt, or offended when our message does not seem to get the reactions we wanted or expected.

At a conscious level we tend to focus on the words we’re using when communicating verbally. Unfortunately, it is the unspoken, nonverbal communications –the messages we send- through our body language, expression, and apparent willingness to engage with other people – that most people “hear” at a more fundamental level.  From the earliest days of our species, it was important for individuals who did not know each other to be able to tell whether someone they met was a potential threat or not.  We not only learned to read one another’s unspoken signals, but we learned to transmit these signals as well.

Studies first conducted by Albert Mehrabian, Professor Emeritus of Psychology, UCLA, suggested that 55% of what we “say” comes from facial expression and body language, 38% comes from our vocal tone, and only 7% comes from the actual words we use.

Some evidence suggests that, particularly within racial and cultural groups, these signals are universal.  We are even good enough, at an unconscious level, to tell the difference between a real and a fake smile.  The problem is that we are not always aware of the other signals we’re sending.  The person, for example, who has mild trouble hearing may scowl when concentrating on something being said in a meeting.  They may be focusing to hear better, but others may interpret their expression as disapproving.  The shy person may be uncomfortable with complements or making a presentation in front of an audience, and therefore tries to get out of the situation as fast as possible. Though just timid or bashful, others may interpret their actions as rude and ungracious.

It Gets Complicated

Interpersonal difficulties can have a direct impact on our social and mental well-being. Misunderstandings both at home and in the office can cause anxiety, frustration, anger and other negative emotions. Our interpersonal skills can impact our level of acceptance by others or how well we accept those around us. And those things can directly impact relationships, careers, and other vital parts of our lives.

Although our personality greatly influences our natural interpersonal characteristics, much about how we communicate is learned from very early in life. Further, those characteristics change over time as we interact with others throughout our lives. As such, we can also learn to actively modify those skills.

If you find that your interpersonal skills are not what they should be; if you find that you are often misunderstood at work or at home; if communicating with those around you is a challenge that is causing problems, we urge you to call Capital EAP and speak to one of our trained counselors.

In addition to individual counseling, Capital EAP offers specific workplace trainings on Effective Listening, Communications, and a broad range of other interpersonal skills that can significantly add to the efficiency and effectiveness of any office, organization, or team.