What makes somebody successful at work? It’s tempting to point to tangible qualities and accomplishments – things that are easily understood and quantified, like industry certifications, specific expertise, and lengthy experience.
No shade to technical skills – they’re certainly important. But let’s give some credit to their equally crucial yet often underappreciated counterpart: interpersonal skills (often called “soft skills”). These enigmatic abilities carry a lot of weight – depending on who you ask, up to 80% of career achievement is based on soft skills, rather than technical expertise.
Let’s stop dismissing interpersonal skills as touchy-feely traits or needless resume fluff and invest the energy to identify them, understand them, and perhaps most importantly, improve them.
What are interpersonal skills?
Break down the roots of the word and you’ll quickly get a solid understanding of the definition of interpersonal skills:
Interpersonal skills are often oversimplified to indicate that someone is “nice,” “friendly,” or “likable,” but that’s not accurate. Interpersonal skills aren’t about personality qualities – they’re specific behaviors and competencies that allow someone to work well with other people.
Interpersonal skills are the skills you use when working, communicating, and interacting with other people. These skills come to some people more naturally than others, with extroverts in particular excelling with interpersonal skills. But introverts shouldn’t count themselves out – these are still skills, so they can also be learned and practiced if you aren’t a natural.
8 examples of interpersonal skills
The broad meaning of interpersonal skills gives a basic understanding of how they’re different from technical capabilities (things like knowing a specific programming language or understanding project management methodologies).
But what do these soft skills actually look like in a work setting? There’s no definitive list of the most important interpersonal skills at work, as a lot of that will depend on your role, industry, and even company.
However, these eight interpersonal skills come up frequently and are applicable across a wide range of jobs and workplaces:
- Conflict resolution
- Emotional intelligence
Benefits of interpersonal skills
If the above list felt like nothing more than a list of buzzwords to beef up your LinkedIn profile or make it past an applicant tracking system, here are a few of the most notable benefits of investing your time, energy, and attention into your interpersonal skills:
- Build stronger relationships: Interpersonal skills allow you to connect and interact positively with other people. They allow you to understand other people’s emotions, communicate more effectively, establish more trust, and all-around foster more solid relationships. Those bonds fuel success at work, with research showing that leaders who prioritize relationships with employees do better – and as an added bonus, their employees do too.
- Set yourself apart: Interpersonal skills are always crucial, but especially when you’re on the job market. Data from LinkedIn states that 92% of talent professionals say soft skills are equally or more important to hire for than hard skills. Even in sectors like FinTech or healthcare that typically demand highly-specialized technical skills, the preference for hard skills was only 4% higher than the preference for soft skills. Developing your interpersonal capabilities helps you stand out in your job search – and in your existing workplace too.
- Improve your happiness (and performance): When you have an easier time relating to and interacting with the people you work with, you’ll help build a positive work environment not just for yourself, but for everyone. That positive helps you feel happier, be more engaged with your work, and even boosts your productivity.
How to improve your interpersonal skills
There are plenty of advantages to reap when you have solid soft skills, but then the question becomes: How do you get there? How do you build your interpersonal skills?
It doesn’t feel as straightforward or measurable as mastering Photoshop or marketing analytics, but there are ways that you can improve your interpersonal skills – regardless of where you’re starting from.
1. Build your self-awareness
From conflict resolution to problem-solving, there are a ton of different and meaningful soft skills you could focus on. The key is to understand which ones will be the most impactful for you – and that starts with knowing what you lack.
Nobody wants to take a magnifying glass to their own shortcomings, but it’s essential to understand what you can improve about your interactions with others. You can get this information by:
- Completing a self-assessment like CliftonStrengths
- Participating in a team assessment like Johari Window
- Soliciting feedback from people you work closely with
- Reflecting on past interactions, projects, and performance reviews
Once you have a clearer direction about where you’re falling short (again, a little painful yet necessary), it’s time to think about interpersonal skills through a different filter: Which ones are most pertinent to your current role and your future career goals?
Maybe you figure out that you aren’t the greatest networker. That’s not necessarily make-or-break as a software developer, but a much bigger deal if you’re in business development.
Think about your existing career as well as where you’d like to head in the future. That will help you pinpoint the soft skills that will make the most meaningful and immediate difference for you – rather than getting overwhelmed by trying to work on all of them at once.
2. Spend time with other people
You’re not going to become a better swimmer if you’re not in the water – and you’re not going to build your interpersonal skills if you’re not around other people.
While there are certainly things you can do independently to bolster your soft skills, you’ll get your most substantial education when you put yourself out there and interact with others. There are tons of ways you can do this at work, including:
- Volunteering for a cross-functional project
- Joining a company committee or employee resource group (ERG)
- Participating in company events and social outlets
Those give you an opportunity to learn more about where you excel and where you struggle interpersonally, as well as a chance to practice the skills you’re working on.
3. Find a mentor
If there’s someone you admire who shines in a specific area, consider asking them to take you under their wing in a mentorship capacity.
This doesn’t need to be anything formal – it can be as simple as asking your boss, who’s an ace negotiator, for some advice and resources. Or picking the brain of a colleague who always manages to get to the bottom of an issue.
Soaking in tips and experience from somebody skilled can be effective, but this might surprise you: You can get just as much benefit from mentoring someone yourself.
It’s another chance to interact closely with another person (which again, is crucial for bolstering your interpersonal skills) while simultaneously developing your own expertise through practice, repetition, and teaching. Research shows that both mentors and mentees improve their soft skills in a mentoring relationship.
4. Pursue formal training
Courses, articles, podcasts, books, webinars, interviews…there’s a practically endless buffet of educational resources out there for you to peruse.
When you’ve zoned in on a specific interpersonal skill you want to develop, it’s worth seeing what’s already out there that could support you on your journey. Here are a couple of ways you could get started:
- Search a platform like LinkedIn Learning or Coursera to see what formal courses exist for your chosen skill (read the reviews from other learners)
- Ask your colleagues to recommend resources they loved (you can even start a designated Slack channel to share with each other)
- Look for a coach that specializes in the skill you’re trying to advance
How to showcase your interpersonal skills
Here’s the tricky thing about interpersonal skills: You know them when you see them. They’re about actions, not words.
That makes them notoriously tough to tout when you need to – whether that’s on your resume, in a job interview, or in a self-evaluation when it’s time for your performance review.
So much of demonstrating your interpersonal skills is going to be about…well, demonstrating them. Ideally, you shouldn’t have to loudly broadcast them because you’ll embody them. This happens even in small ways. For example, during a job search, it could look like:
- Responding promptly and professionally to all messages from the hiring manager
- Showing up to interviews early and prepared
- Engaging in friendly small talk with anybody you interact with
But what about your pesky resume? How do you capture your soft skills there, without packing it full of bulleted buzzwords? Focus on results – not just what you did, but what you achieved. Make sure to quantify those results wherever you can too. For example, you could say:
- “Identified and resolved a bottleneck in the customer journey, reducing abandoned carts by 32% in one quarter” rather than listing “skilled problem-solver” in your key skills section
- “Collaborated closely with the sales, marketing, and human resources teams to plan a virtual career event that generated 85 new applications from qualified candidates” rather than “dedicated team player”
Soft skills, firm impact
It’s far too tempting to write off interpersonal skills as mushy-gushy, feel-good buzzwords – as if they’re nothing more than qualifications you use to fill up blank space on your resume.
In reality, though, these seemingly superfluous skills play a major role in achieving your career goals – and enjoying the journey too.
Get stories like this in your inbox