The definition of interpersonal skills is “… the life skills we use every day to communicate and interact with other people, both individually and in groups.”
All interpersonal skills are communication skills. The word “interpersonal” comes from combining two Latin words, “inter” meaning “between or among,” and “person” meaning “an individual human being.” Skill implies that we’re consciously using whatever it is. Every time we communicate with another living thing (although in this article, we’ll stay with humans) we use interpersonal skills, at some level of consciousness. Even those of us who reach out by writing 99.9% of the time have to consider our audience – to whom are we writing? Human beings, we hope. Therefore, writing is also a form of interpersonal communication.
Interpersonal skills and non-verbal communication have been studied since the time of Darwin, even by the man himself. Observing and codifying our effect on others, though, has only been considered important since 1955, when Adam Kendon, Albert Scheflen, and Ray Birdwhistell first began to analyze non-verbal communication. Interpersonal skills, and verbal and non-verbal communication have grown to become huge fields of study since then.
Every single interpersonal skill must begin with respect for whomever we are trying to reach, be it one person on the phone, or an auditorium full of bored teenagers. Respect boils down to paying attention to our listeners. We can’t control our audience’s behaviors and their reactions or responses to what we say. We can take care to tailor our delivery to our recipients, and paying attention to their non-verbal behaviors and cues helps us to deliver our message effectively.
What Are Interpersonal Skills
- Communication Skills
- Interpersonal Communication
- Verbal Communication with individuals, small groups, and larger audiences
- Non-verbal Communication
- Listening Skills
- Decision Making and Problem Solving
- Group Roles
- Barriers to Effective Communication
Each one of the above items needs a strong awareness of who we want to get our message across to. The tricky part is, not only do we want to convey the message, we want to send it so the receiver(s) of the message understand it. Also, we don’t want the recipients of our messages to throw up barriers that might get in the way of getting the message. Not always easy for us to do.
It is impossible to talk about interpersonal skills without exploring the art and science of communication. We are either sending or receiving messages – often both at the same time – every time we interact with others. A firm grasp of interpersonal skills give us a better chance to send the messages we are intending to send.
Communication Skills, Interpersonal Communication, and Verbal Communication
All of the above have the word “communication” in common. “Communication” comes from the Latin and Middle English and has been in use since the fourteenth century. The original word means “to share” or “to make common.” Even back then, it was important to make sure everyone understood something the same way.
Effective communication, which requires us to use all our interpersonal skills, has four basic components:
- Sender – One? A few? Many?
- Message – Formal? Casual? Emotional? Analytical?
- Medium – Spoken? Written?
- Receiver – One? A few? Many?
Communication techniques may differ with individuals, small groups, and larger audiences, but the basic concepts and needed knowledge to get the message across do not change.
It takes just one-tenth of a second (!) for someone to judge and make their first impression of us. And this happens before we open our mouth to say something. A first impression is a non-verbal communicator that doesn’t usually change. The phrase, “You never get a second chance to make a good first impression,” referring to non-verbal elements of communication, has been used ad nauseam. A number of sources give different percentages, but Wikipedia’s entry on nonverbal communication gives two-thirds (about 66.66%) as the amount of all communication that is non-verbal.
Dr. Albert Mehrebian conducted research on the verbal and non-verbal components of communication, and reported, “… the combined effect of simultaneous verbal [7%], vocal [38%], and facial attitude [55%] communications is a weighted sum of their independent effects.” It’s ironic to realize what most of us put the most effort into – what words we use – carries the least amount of our message.
What we don’t say and how we don’t say it tells more than what we do say. Most of what we communicate is done without words. The scary part is that we often don’t realize what messages we may be sending. This includes:
- Tone of voice – Interested? Bored? Aloof? Engaged?
- Speed with which we speak – Quickly? Slowly?
- Loudness of speech – Shout, whisper, conversational? Wait! Is our receiver hard of hearing? Are they trying to lip-read?
- Facial expressions – Eye contact, smile, frown, or neutral, eyebrows up or down
- Distance from the receiver(s) of the message – How close? How far away? Too close? Too distant?
- Posture – Standing? Sitting? Stiff? Relaxed?
- Touching – Any? Some? A lot?
- Clothing – Clean? Proper fit? Stylish? Classic? Comfortable? Practical? Colorful? Conservative?
It is easy to feel overwhelmed at all the information we consciously and unconsciously send and receive, both verbally and non-verbally. A logical progression of non-verbal cues to keep in mind is:
- body language – gesture, posture, distance, touch, and gaze
- object language – signs, designs, and clothing
- environmental language – color, lighting, space, direction, and natural surroundings
Dr. Thomas Holley, a psychiatrist and graduate school instructor at the University of Phoenix, said to his individual counseling students, “When all else fails, fall back on attending behavior.” This translates, in lay terms, to active listening. Interpersonal skills ensure that our audience knows we are paying attention. With respect.
Listening is not a passive action. It needs us to be present. We need to understand what we are hearing, be able to process it, and reply intelligently to the message sender. Active listening can be used when experiencing a brain freeze, even with a large group. Audiences can use a question-and-answer format to steer communication in the direction that makes sense to them. We answer their questions and make our points as we go.
Decision Making and Problem Solving
Sometimes we have to make a decision we know will not be popular with our audience/coworkers. When we have and use good interpersonal skills, we can give bad or unpopular news with a minimum of negative effects. There is an expression, “Tact is the art of telling someone to go to [blazes] and having him happy to be on his way.”
What part are we playing in the meeting or get-together? Leader/Moderator? Attendee? Scribe? Timekeeper? Observer? None of the above? All of the above? When in any kind of group event, we move from one role to another, often unconsciously. No matter what part we take, the better our grasp of what that part entails, the better chance we have of having the meeting or get-together go smoothly.
Barriers to Effective Communication
Any time our verbal and non-verbal communication doesn’t match, we are sending mixed messages, and confusing our recipients. When it comes to believing words or non-verbal communication, people tend to put more weight on the non-verbal part of our message. That’s where “Do as I do, not as I say” comes from. We have been paying attention to actions instead of words for as long as humans have been interacting with each other.
Knowing what culture we’re interacting in matters. Even when we don’t intend to, we can confuse others. The Wikipedia entry on non-verbal communication gives the following example: “Different cultures assign different meanings to different non-verbal movements. For example, in mainstream Western culture, eye contact is interpreted as attentiveness and honesty. In many cultures, however, including Hispanic, Asian, Middle Eastern, and Native American, eye contact is thought to be disrespectful or rude, and lack of eye contact does not mean that a person is not paying attention. Women may especially avoid eye contact with men because it can be taken as a sign of sexual interest.”
The fields of interpersonal skills and interpersonal communication are huge. For example, some researchers make the study of one tiny aspect of non-verbal communication (first impressions or personal space, for example) their life’s work. Given the field’s complexity, here are some websites that provide practical help: