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Whether you work in engineering, marketing, HR or customer service—interpersonal skills are integral to your success. And you better believe that recruiters will be checking for them on your resume and asking about them in job interviews.
Below, we’ll go over interpersonal skills: what it means, which ones you need to succeed at work and how you can hone them.
Interpersonal skills, also known as people skills, are the abilities you use to interact with other people. If you dissect the word “interpersonal,” you get “inter-” meaning “between or among” and “personal” coming from the Latin word “personalis” meaning “of or relating to a person.”
Having great interpersonal skills is essential to building relationships, collaborating with colleagues and creating a successful career.
In the workplace, you need interpersonal skills because every job will involve interacting with people (even I, as a remote freelance writer, deal with clients on a weekly basis!).
Below are the 15 most important interpersonal skills to hone if you want to succeed on the job, especially in remote work.
Conflict management is the ability to successfully handle and resolve the disagreements, disputes and tensions that inevitably arise at work.
With the communication limitations of remote work, conflicts are more likely to arise. Resolving them is crucial—especially if you’re a manager.
As Hubstaff CEO Dave Nevogt writes for the company blog, “Conflicts occur on any team, but on a remote team where face-to-face communication happens less frequently, noticing them is more difficult. As a remote team manager, you need to see those conflicts when they arise and have a plan to combat them.”
Humans infer meaning from much more than just words: we use body language, tone of voice, inflection, facial expressions and more to decide what someone really means. But when you’re working remotely and the only communication you have to go off of is text, it is easy to misinterpret someone’s words—often leading to conflict.
If you lack conflict management skills, you may act aggressively or avoid conflict completely. Either way, trust and communication will break down between you and your colleagues. Ultimately, it may even ruin relationships.
In the workplace, trust is believing that you can rely on your teammates to do what they say they’ll do.
Trust is important in any relationship, but when you’re physically apart from your team, it matters even more. A manager of a remote team can’t look over their shoulder to ensure that their team is hard at work and not messing around on Facebook. With little oversight, managers of remote teams have to trust that their subordinates are working when they say they will be.
Working with people you don’t trust is stressful. Instead of open collaboration, you’ll hold back from each other, and your work will suffer because of it.
“If you are constantly worried that your teammates are doing poor work or are acting out of self interest, it’s highly unlikely you will do your job well,” writes Patrick Healy, Industrial Design Director for Tortuga. “Distrust just takes too much energy. It’s exhausting.”
Empathy is the capacity to feel what someone else is feeling or imagine what it’s like to be in their shoes. As such, it’s a powerful tool for connection.
When you’re working from home with coworkers dispersed across the globe, empathy becomes a necessity. On a constant basis, you will be forced to imagine what it’s like to be in your coworkers’ shoes because you can’t see what it’s like.
For instance, if a coworker Slacks you the message: “I feel like Julie’s been intentionally keeping me out of the loop. I’m so frustrated.” It will require empathy on your part to picture what your coworker must be going through. You can’t hear the frustration in her voice; you can’t see it in her face; you haven’t witnessed her interactions with Julie. To respond with kindness, you’ll need to practice empathy.
In a workplace without empathy, employees are less productive and less likely to stick around. In Businessolver’s 2020 State of Workplace Empathy report, 76% of employees said they believe empathy boosts productivity. Further, the 2019 report found that 82% would consider leaving their company for a more empathetic one.
Most of the time, being empathetic toward your colleagues is as simple as pausing (instead of reacting) and using the power of your imagination to try to understand where the other person is coming from.
For example, let’s say a coworker tells you they’ll be delivering a project one day late. This happened during the last project, too, so your initial reaction is feelings of annoyance and anger. But, before you lash out, you pause to consider what you know about your coworker. You know that he lost his mom a month ago and that he’s in the middle of a cross-country move. You know that he is usually extremely reliable and that this is out of character for him. Based on this reflection, you realize that if you were him, you’d have a hard time managing projects too.
Though your initial response was to send a snide message about how he’s been dropping the ball lately, your empathetic response is to ask him how he’s doing and what you can do to make the load a little lighter during this tough time.
“You don’t need to try to be best friends with everyone on your team,” former RescueTime CEO Robby Macdonell shared in an interview with Authority Magazine. “But try to stay aware of their experience at work and listen for ways you can improve it. Sometimes, you’ll find ways to show you care that aren’t obvious.”
Just because most of your communication as a remote worker will be done via written word doesn’t mean you don’t need listening skills. Listening is more than hearing.
As Sayed Balkhi, founder of OptinMonster, writes for the Huffington Post, “It’s not just hearing the words that are being said but also understanding and connecting with what the person is saying.”
Digital communication comes with unique challenges. Much of the time, when you’re working remotely, you’ll be using text to communicate, with maybe some audio and video thrown in occasionally. That means you don’t have nonverbal cues to pick up on—so to understand someone’s message, you need to really listen (i.e., pay attention) to their words.
A lack of listening skills creates inefficiencies and conflict. If you’re not paying attention to what people are trying to tell you, you’ll create more work for you and your team. You’re also more likely to offend people in ways that could escalate into full-blown arguments.
Begin with humility. Imagine that everyone on your team has something valuable to teach you, something you never could learn on your own. Instead of speaking first and speaking often, challenge yourself to listen more.
Based on our research on workplace motivations, we define tolerance as the “level of acceptance and appreciation for the unique styles, values and rules of each person including your own.”
The Fingerprint for Success team tends towards a very high level of tolerance. Check out our guide on the benefits (and challenges) of a team with high tolerance.
Companies with remote teams are able to source talent from all over the world. On top of that, remote workers are used to a higher level of autonomy than your typical office worker.
Because of these two things, you may find that each remote team member will have unique ways of doing things. It will require a high level of tolerance to appreciate how these different styles and cultures can contribute to the overall good of the company.
A lack of tolerance will make an already physically distant team feel emotionally distant from each other too, as people with low tolerance will try to force their own styles and opinions on those they think are not complying. This may also inhibit growth and creativity.
Realize that, as skilled as you may be, you don’t know everything, and your method isn’t necessarily the best way. Find ways to celebrate your team’s differences and assign work according to each individual’s unique strengths.
The Oxford Dictionary defines inclusivity as:
“The practice or policy of providing equal access to opportunities and resources for people who might otherwise be excluded or marginalized, such as those having physical or mental disabilities or belonging to other minority groups.”
Inclusivity is different from diversity. You can have a diverse team—people of different ethnicities, cultures, abilities and so-forth—without being inclusive.
Let’s face it—remote work can be lonely. And you know what makes it even lonelier? Being excluded. As human beings, we yearn to belong, and inclusion helps cultivate that feeling. Yet, there’s a lot that gets in the way of that need.
“At work, the things that make us human are often the same things that stop us from building more diverse and inclusive environments,” Culture Amp Founder and CEO Didier Elzinga writes for the company blog. “It’s human nature to form closer bonds with people who are similar. It’s this familiarity that gives people an innate sense of belonging.”
By failing to be inclusive, you’ll miss out on valuable insights and contributions from those you exclude. In addition, those who are excluded will feel as if they don’t belong, leading to dissatisfaction and loneliness.
When it comes down to it, inclusivity is really about being considerate. You’ll first need to learn about your team’s needs and challenges in order to accommodate their differences. Next, you’ll need to put forth the extra effort. Inclusivity requires actively going out of your way to accommodate differences and hear voices that don’t get as much floor time.
For instance, it can be more difficult to chime in during video conference calls than during in-person meetings. Audio lags, frozen video and hearing impairments can result in disorientation. Many people may choose not to speak up during the meeting. Some people prefer to write their thoughts or to discuss things one-on-one. Allow for those different preferences by including a chat box during the video meeting or asking for feedback via email once the meeting is over.
Additionally, work on creating a psychologically safe environment where your employees know that they can speak up without fear of retaliation.
According to the Cambridge Dictionary, self-discipline is “the ability to make yourself do things you know you should do even when you do not want to.”
When hiring remote workers, Brian Hughes, CEO of Integrity Marketing & Consulting, says discipline is one of the top traits to look for. “If the person can’t remain on task and complete work on time without constant oversight,” he writes for Entrepreneur, “then they shouldn’t telecommute.”
Without coworkers or your boss physically present, remote work gives you a lot of autonomy, but with that comes the temptation to slack off. It requires self-discipline to show up to work when your “office” is just a computer in a crowded corner of your living room.
Without self-discipline, you’ll have a hard time getting anything done. You may succumb to the many temptations present while working from home: taking way too many snack breaks, scrolling through Instagram when you should be typing up that report or answering emails from the comfort of your bed. It’s hard to maintain a high level of productivity when you allow your work life and personal life to blend too much.
Being able to make your needs known in a clear and direct way is at the heart of assertiveness, which the Cambridge Dictionary defines as “the quality of being confident and not frightened to say what you want or believe.”
When a team is physically apart, it’s easy for people and opinions to be overlooked. To be effective as a remote worker, you’ll need to learn to assert yourself. Admittedly, this may feel weird at first.
As Michael Adorno, vice president of communications at Hot Paper Lantern, explains in a Fast Company article: “Yes, it may seem cold and blunt, or even perhaps entirely out of character. But you need to do this to help your onsite colleagues understand your needs, wants, and goals, so you can be an efficient and contributing member of the team.”
If you lack assertiveness, you’ll likely be passed over for many opportunities. You may have brilliant ideas or pressing needs that don’t ever see the light of day. You’ll also find that your boundaries are constantly being violated because you don’t have the confidence to voice them.
Communication is key to having good interpersonal skills, but it’s such a broad field that I want to narrow it down further. I’ll talk about written communication here and go over verbal communication in the next section.
Whether it’s text messages, Slack chats or emails, writing will be your predominant form of communication as a remote worker. As such, your success relies on honing your writing skills.
“I’ve found the ability to write cogently and effectively to be a critical skill to possess,” BookBaby President Steven Spatz shares in an article for Mission.org. “It gives you the ability to motivate others, empathize with employees, and connect with customers.”
When you lack writing skills in a remote work environment, you run the risk of being misunderstood, leading to confusion and conflict. It makes it difficult to communicate effectively with your teammates.
Practice daily, and ask for feedback. It could be as simple as asking a trusted friend or colleague to review an email before you hit send. You can even purchase software like Grammarly to check your grammar and your tone.
While writing makes up much of the communication on a remote team, speaking—whether over the phone or via video conferencing—is important too.
Being able to communicate clearly when you speak will make your work a lot easier.
As Jo Deal, chief human resources officer at LogMeIn, told Fast Company, “Employees that clearly explain issues, ask questions, and present ideas are more productive themselves and foster productivity on wider teams.”
Without good speaking skills, it’ll be tough to get your message across to your team during phone and video calls. This may result in misunderstandings and frustration.
Practice in front of a mirror or record yourself to see and hear how you present to others. This grants you awareness of things you probably didn’t notice, such as the verbal fillers you use (e.g., “uh,” “like,” “um”) or the distracting hand gestures you make. There are even apps, such as Ummo and LikeSo, that analyze your talking patterns and help you improve.
Being responsive doesn’t mean you have to reply to every message within seconds. Rather, it means responding within the expected timeframe. It’s up to you and your company to set those expectations.
In this digital age, people expect quick responses—especially when they’re your customers. And for your coworkers, in the absence of the visual cues inherent to an office space, responsiveness shows that you are paying attention and are indeed working while you telecommute.
Whether it’s true or not, when someone lacks responsiveness, we tend to think they’re not reliable. Especially in a remote work environment, slow response times from an employee can make it look like they’re not actually working.
Create both an internal and external outline of expectations regarding response times for different modes of communication.
“Your employees won’t be responsive to customers unless you also set internal responsiveness as an expectation among your team,” writes Vanderbloemen Search Group CEO William Vanderbloemen in an article for Forbes. He says his company has created a communication code so that employees know, for instance, that the expected response time for emails is 24 hours.
Relationship building is active: it’s checking in with teammates for no other reason than to see how they’re doing; it’s creating time and space for team bonding; and it’s caring for your coworkers as human beings.
Being intentional about relationship building in a remote team is crucial because there are so few opportunities for it. The virtual nature of remote work means there’s less time for serendipitous moments of bonding with your team. You’ll have to go out of your way to create those moments, which will help increase trust.
Remote work is lonely enough as it is, but when you work with people you don’t feel close to, it can feel even worse.
How often do you go out of your way to do something to show your teammates you care? Thoughtfulness is a component of relationship building that helps your coworkers feel valued.
With the lack of in-person communication, working remotely can start to feel very transactional. Thoughtfulness reinfuses the human element by showing your coworkers that you see them as human beings with needs that you’re willing to help meet. Thoughtfulness also has an element of intentionality, where you think about the consequences of an action or policy ahead of time. This prevents complications down the road.
Without thoughtfulness, you risk being reckless, saying or doing things without considering the consequences. This may lead to distrust or conflict in your team.
“If you’re looking to spark thoughtfulness in your office, you need to put people first,” suggests John Hall, co-founder of Calendar, in an article for Forbes. “Constantly consider the concerns, interests, and values of your team, and prioritize those over productivity or profits ‘at any cost.’”
Being thoughtful begins with awareness. Ask questions. This can be formal, such as a weekly anonymous Q&A at your all-hands meeting or it can be informal, such as a quick message to one of your teammates to ask if there’s any way you can support them.
Self-awareness means knowing yourself, both the good and the bad. If you don’t know your strengths, you won’t know how to use them to further your company’s mission. If you don’t know your weaknesses, you won’t be able to improve.
If innovation is important to your company, then self-awareness is crucial. Without it, employees and organizations stagnate. In his book, Creativity, Inc., Pixar co-founder Ed Catmull writes, “Self-interest guides opposition to change, but lack of self-awareness fuels it even more.”
Because your boss and coworkers aren’t around to praise or correct you, it can be harder to gain self-awareness as a remote worker—all the more reason to focus on it.
If you don’t know your strengths and weaknesses, the biggest danger is that you won’t be able to contribute your best work to your organization. Further, you might keep harming your teammates in the same ways because you can’t see what you’re doing wrong.
As a remote worker, the best thing you can do to gain self-awareness is to ask for constant feedback. Because no one can see you working, you’ll also need to be transparent about your work processes so that others can point out any problem areas.
Transparency gives your team full insight into your thought processes and actions, improving efficiency and building trust.
Transparency is especially important for remote teams because there is already so little oversight. No one can glance over at your computer to see how things are going or overhear meetings at the next table over. Without transparency, it’s hard to ensure that people are optimizing their work.
In a Medium article, KISSPatent CEO D’vorah Graeser calls transparency “the launchpad for efficiency.” “We strive to keep everything as transparent as possible,” she writes. “This helps us be accountable and recognize when someone needs help in making decisions.”
When companies fail at transparency, it can lead to mistrust from their employees who feel out of the loop. Additionally, a lack of transparency leads to inefficiencies. If your teammate, for example, doesn’t know that you already resolved a bug that a customer wrote in about, then they might waste time attempting a fix.
After reviewing these 15 interpersonal skills and the myriad ways in which they benefit teams—especially remote ones—hopefully, you realize why you shouldn’t write off those so-called “soft skills.”
Notice them, hone them, add them to your resume. You never know just how it will pay off in the future.