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Interpersonal Communication Skills: Examples and How to Develop Them

a man and woman having a good talk about interpersonal communication skills

From phone calls to emails to Slack messages—like it or not, none of us would be able to do our jobs without interpersonal communication skills.

Interpersonal communication refers to the exchange of information between people. Examples include one-on-one meetings, conference calls, emails, text messages or handwritten letters (does anyone still send those?).

And while you probably don’t give it much thought on a regular basis, the fact is, you’re using interpersonal communication every day on the job. So, it’d be wise to master it to do your best work.

Table of contents
Why does interpersonal communication matter?
What are the 4 types of interpersonal communication?
Become a master of interpersonal communication

Why does interpersonal communication matter?

It makes you likeable (which helps you get what you want)

In the workplace, mastering interpersonal communication is particularly crucial if you want to achieve goals and get what you want. Being able to convey your feelings and messages clearly and effectively can help people like you more, and when people like you more, they’re much more likely to cooperate.

In our motivation research, we found that those who have a high motivation toward people are highly interested in getting along with others—so interpersonal communication is especially important if you fall into this camp. To be sure what your workplace motivations are, sign up for our free people analytics tool and get a detailed report.

It’s the reason a robot can’t take your job

Additionally, interpersonal communication skills are important because they’re the one area that can’t be outsourced to machines. You can’t take the “person” out of interpersonal; it’s unique to humans. So while robots are able to automate hard skills, they’ve got nothing on us when it comes to soft skills! (Read more about the difference between hard skills vs soft skills.

It makes you a desirable job candidate

The 2017 Corporate Recruiters Survey Report surveyed 959 employers to learn what they were looking for when recruiting among business master’s graduates. When asked to rank skill sets based on their importance when hiring for mid-level positions, employers ranked communication skills as the most important.

Now that you see how crucial communication skills are, let’s go over the four types of interpersonal communication and how you can use them to enhance your career.

What are the 4 types of interpersonal communication?

1. Oral Communication

Oral communication is anything involving speaking, from the words you choose to your tone of voice when you say them. This type of interpersonal communication probably gets the most attention in the workplace.

Oral communication is vital to your work and can even make you more likeable. In one study, researchers Juliana Schroeder and Nicholas Epley found that employers and recruiters were more likely to want to hire a job candidate when they listened to an audio recording of the candidate’s pitch rather than when they read or watched it. This suggests that voice alone has the power to persuade.

Examples of oral communication

  • Public speaking
  • Phone calls
  • Audio messages
  • Podcasts
  • Radio interviews
  • Meetings

How to improve oral communication

  • Pay attention to intonation. Intonation, also known as pitch, means the rising and falling of your voice. Generally speaking, your voice falls at the end of a statement to indicate that you’re done talking, and it rises at the end of a statement when you are asking a question. There is something known as uptalk or upspeak, though, and recent research by Amanda Ritchart and Amalia Arvaniti suggests that it may be a way to hold the floor.
  • Omit or reduce verbal fillers. Verbal fillers are vocalizations such as “um,” “uh,” “you know” and “like.” They’re useful in that they help others know that you’ve got more to say and are just trying to find the words. This is particularly helpful when you’re on a phone call because, if you are silent for too long, people on the other line may think that the call dropped. When verbal fillers are used too much, though, they can be a nuisance for the listener. So, if you must use them, keep them to a minimum.
  • Change your speaking rate depending on the situation. How fast or slow you speak can have an effect on your audience. Speaking fast could be more persuasive, according to the findings of one University of Southern California study. Speaking slowly, on the other hand, could be seen as more kind. In a study published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology, researchers Monica McHenry and colleagues found that oncologists who slowed down their rate of speech when delivering bad news were rated by listeners as being “more caring and sympathetic.”

2. Written Communication

Written communication includes words and symbols (e.g., emojis and punctuation) that are typed or marked with a pen, pencil or other writing instrument.

Guess what? That means grammar is a form of communication! And just what does your grammar say about you? Well, it might mark you as a desirable employee. In 2013, Grammarly conducted a study analyzing 100 LinkedIn profiles in the consumer packaged goods industry. All of the professionals included in the study were native English speakers. Here’s what Grammarly found: having fewer grammar errors in their profiles was linked to achieving higher positions and more promotions.

When you work remotely, written communication is especially important because it will make up the vast majority of your day-to-day communication, whether via Slack messages, Google Docs or emails.

Examples of written communication

  • Email
  • Slack messages
  • Text messages
  • Reports
  • Proposals
  • Job descriptions
  • Performance evaluations
  • Grammar
  • PowerPoints

How to improve your written communication

  • Be careful with sarcasm. Sarcasm is among the most difficult things to convey in written communication. Thankfully, scientists have found a way to make it easier. In a study published in The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, researchers Ruth Filik and colleagues found that emoticons convey sarcasm better than punctuation marks. In particular, the wink face ;-) and tongue face :-P help drive sarcasm home when the statement is ambiguous.

    Further, the researchers found that sarcasm blunts the emotional impact of written statements, making criticism seem less negative and praise seem less positive. In particular, including a winking emoticon with literal praise made it seem less positive, while including it with literal criticism made it seem less negative.
  • Enhance written messages with emojis and GIFs. As long as it’s part of your company culture, using emojis and GIFs can be helpful when trying to convey the tone of your written message. This is especially true during casual conversations, such as those between you and a work friend chatting on Slack. Emojis and GIFs can add humor and emotion to otherwise stale communication. If you’re writing an email to a new client, however, that’s probably not the time or place to include a GIF.
  • Know written communication’s limitations. We’re pretty bad at inferring people’s feelings from written text. If emotion plays a large role in your message, then it’s best to get on the phone. The added ability to hear your voice will greatly increase the chances that your conversation partner will pick up on the emotions you’re trying to convey. And, as we saw earlier, hearing your voice could be more persuasive.

3. Nonverbal Communication

Nonverbal communication includes any communication that does not use words: hand gestures, eye contact, facial expressions, body posture, clothing and even the objects on your desk are conveying a message to your audience.

In our workplace motivation research, we found that when it comes to communication, people fall on a range of neutral to affective. Nonverbal communication is where affective communicators shine! They’re experts at reading nonverbal cues, making them masters of reading the room during negotiations, and they tend to have high emotional intelligence.

Examples of nonverbal communication

  • Video
  • Handshake
  • Eye contact
  • Facial expressions
  • Clothing
  • Voice pitch

How to improve your nonverbal communication

  • Incorporate video into your remote work meetings. While neutral communicators will do well with phone calls or emails because they focus on words to understand a message, affective communicators could really suffer without nonverbal cues like facial expressions. To accommodate both types, try to incorporate more video into your meetings.
  • Use that firm handshake. Yes, that age-old advice about giving a firm handshake still holds. A University of Alabama study by William Chaplin and colleagues found that people who had a firm handshake made more favorable impressions. A 2012 study led by Florin Dolcos found that an initial handshake can enhance the positive effects and reduce the negative effects of a social interaction.
  • Avoid slouching. Not only is slouching bad for your back, but it could also make you feel less confident. In a 2018 study from San Francisco State University, professor Erik Peper and colleagues had students take math tests while sitting erect or slouched. After the math tests, 56% of the students said it was easier to perform the calculations while sitting up straight versus slumped over. So, avoiding slouching could be a simple way to communicate to yourself, “Hey, I’m feeling confident!” This could be particularly useful before doing a presentation or giving a speech, as you’ll want to come across as confident to your audience.

4. Listening

I’ve saved the best for last! Listening is a form of communication because, without it, you don’t have true communication. Plus, the act of listening, which is signaled through things like head nodding, eye contact and saying “mhm,” sends a message to the speaker: “You have my attention, and your message matters to me.” 

Listening goes beyond just hearing what someone is saying; it involves actively trying to understand and consider what they’re saying. Another interesting thing, especially in this digital age, is that listening doesn’t necessarily mean there is an audio component. If you’re chatting with someone via Slack messages, you’ll be “listening” to them (i.e., paying attention to their words and trying to understand) without actually hearing them.

If you want one instant way to improve your likeability, it’s through listening. In one study, Harvard researchers Karen Huang and colleagues found that asking questions, particularly follow-up questions, made the speaker more liked by their conversation partner. This is because question-asking is 

linked to responsiveness, a characteristic of which listening is a part.

How to improve your listening skills

  • Resist the urge to chime in. You know the situation: your teammate is describing a problem they’ve run into during a project, and you’ve got something brilliant to add to the conversation. As tempting as it might be to blurt it out—hold it. Wait until they’re finished talking and then take the floor.
  • Take notes. I have a friend who writes things down while I’m talking to her—such as when I mention a good book I read or a movie I watched—and it always makes me feel good that what I say is so important that she wants to take notes on it!

    Note-taking has two benefits: it shows that you’re listening, and it ensures that you’ll remember the important points later.

    When you’re taking notes during video calls, usually the camera angle is so close that you can’t see pen and paper. It simply looks like you’re looking off-screen, and perhaps not paying attention. In this case, make sure to tell the participants that you’re writing down notes about what they’re saying so they don’t feel ignored.
  • Practice empathy. Cognitive empathy involves “perspective-taking,” where you imagine yourself in another person’s shoes. It can help you feel a little bit of what that person is going through and withhold judgment. It makes you a better listener because, instead of listening to correct or confront them, you’re listening to understand them. You may not agree in the end, but you’ll have a much more fruitful conversation if you attempt to see where they’re coming from.
  • Feel free to make the video chat a phone call instead. With remote work, listening becomes particularly tricky when buffering video and spotty Internet connections come into play. If a poor connection is making it difficult to listen during your video call, ask them if you can switch to a phone call instead.

Become a master of interpersonal communication

Now that you know the four types of interpersonal communication, use what you’ve learned to become more likeable at work, build stronger relationships with colleagues and get your message across with less stress.

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