Interpersonal skills are the subtle behaviours which matter the most in our dealings with other people at work, and in life. They’re something I think about, observe, teach, and use every single day. Some people believe these skills are unteachable - that you’re either born with them, or without - but my experience tells me this is not the case. How well we engage and listen to people; our ability to forge pleasant working relationships and make interactions fruitful. These are all reliant on our interpersonal skills, so it makes sense that improving them can be transformational for client-facing teams.
Recently, I was asked a question which made me think about interpersonal skills from a fresh perspective. The question was,
“Which interpersonal skills do you teach to Life Science teams which apply equally to how people interact in ‘real life’?”
The easiest way to answer that is one the most people don’t want to hear - put simply, it’s that we're unfortunately nowhere near as interesting as we think we are. The trap with believing you’re more interesting than you actually are - and we’re all guilty of falling into it from time to time - is that it leads to a natural wish to tell everybody about who we are and what we're doing. In real life, this means you’re the person holding forth on your job, family, or hobby for an excessive amount of time, without noticing our companions eyes’ glazing over.
In a commercial role, it leads us to overly focus on telling customers about the stuff that we have. What our organisation is doing. Why it's the best thing since sliced bread. It gives us the urge to shower stakeholders with our brilliance, it makes us switch off our listening, curious brain and it makes it challenging to build rapport.
So, the interpersonal skill here which applies equally to ‘real life’ is less of a skill, and more of a learning. It’s the ability to understand and become comfortable with the reality that you, unfortunately, aren't as interesting as you think you are. The truth is, you're much better served by being a bit quieter, by being a whole lot more interested in other people and by being genuinely curious.
In a commercial sense, this looks like asking “hey, what's happening in your world? And how do you feel about that?” - and really listening to the answers. It looks like working together to find out whether there’s something that you have in your kitbag which could potentially help the person you’re meeting with. And it looks like having the grace and awareness to know when you’re not able to help that person, and recognise it as your cue to leave so as to respect their precious time.
Obviously, we hope that there is something in your kitbag to help, and you can work together to build a partnership of mutual benefit. But knowing that it won’t always be the case (and being attuned enough to realise and respond accordingly) is key.
When it comes to interpersonal skills, I think the biggest learning for people generally - agnostic to industry - is to be a bit more curious. Be aware of the inherent assumptions that inform the way that you operate. Catch these assumptions and hold on to them. Ask some better questions and then shut up and truly listen to the response. If you're able to do that, in almost all social and professional engagements, there'll be benefits for you and the person you’re interacting with.