In most professions, interpersonal skills are crucial to success. Very few of us work entirely alone, so learning how to interact and communicate with others will almost certainly help your career. Interpersonal skills are sometimes known as people skills, soft skills, or social skills. They include listening, conflict resolution, and teamwork.
In this article, you’ll learn precisely which interpersonal skills you need in the workplace, how they will benefit you, and how to develop them.
How to improve your interpersonal skills for work
If you don’t have great people skills, don’t worry—with practice, you can improve. Here are 22 tips to help you develop strong interpersonal skills for work.
1. Set yourself useful goals
By taking an inventory of skills you already have and those you’d like to develop, you can set useful goals. Look at this list of interpersonal skills, and decide which ones you’d like to work on:
- Active listening
- Clear communication (both verbal and non-verbal)
- Asking good questions
- Conflict resolution
- Problem-solving and decision-making
- Giving and receiving feedback
- Assertiveness (a communication style that balances your needs with the needs of other people)
When you’ve figured out which skills you need to work on, start looking for opportunities to practice them at work.
Specific goals are usually more useful than general intentions. For example, if you want to improve your listening skills, you could challenge yourself to go a whole day without interrupting anyone. Or, if you tend to say “yes” to everything and want to improve your assertiveness skills, you could aim to say “no” the next time a colleague asks you to take on some work that doesn’t fit into your schedule.
2. Look for your colleagues’ good points
At some stage in your career, it’s likely that you’ll have to work with someone you don’t like. But if you can appreciate someone’s positive characteristics and expertise, your attitude may show through when you interact with them, creating a nicer atmosphere and allowing more relaxed communication.
For example, your supervisor might be overbearing, with an annoying habit of saying the same thing several times during every meeting. But they might also be good at motivating their team in times of trouble. When they irritate you, you could remind yourself that, in general, they are a competent manager who wants everyone to succeed.
3. Show interest in your colleagues
You don’t need to befriend everyone at work. However, if you can get curious about what your colleagues are like and what they enjoy outside of working hours, your professional relationships will probably improve.
Challenge yourself to discover at least one interesting thing about every coworker. Curiosity is a great way to move past trivial small talk and get to know someone better. If you aren’t naturally curious about the people around you, our article on how to be interested in others may help.
4. Focus on solutions rather than problems
We all need to raise problems from time to time, but if you complain too often at work, you’ll come across as negative. When you raise a problem, try to suggest an appropriate solution at the same time.
For example, instead of saying to your manager, “I can’t concentrate in the main office on Friday afternoons because everyone is too noisy,” you could say, “I was wondering whether I could work in one of the spare meeting rooms on Friday afternoons? It gets noisy at that time, and I find it hard to focus.”
If you have a bad habit of complaining all the time, you might like some additional tips on how to stop complaining.
5. Be proactive in maintaining work relationships
Try to take a proactive approach when it comes to maintaining your professional relationships. Just like friendships, the social bonds you make at work need maintenance. For example, if you haven’t had lunch or a coffee with your colleagues for a week or two, take the initiative and suggest meeting up during your break time.
You might also like this article on how to be more social at work.
6. Accept that you can’t please everybody
Some people will not like you, even if you treat them with courtesy. In most cases, it doesn’t mean there is anything wrong with you. If you get along well with most of your coworkers and you don’t have any particular reason to think that you’ve offended someone, it’s probably safe to assume that your personalities simply don’t match.
Try not to take rudeness personally. You can’t control how other people behave towards you. However, you can pride yourself on remaining polite and professional when under stress. Tell yourself that getting along with your colleagues is just one of your job duties.
7. Prepare for predictable social situations
We can’t tell exactly what people will say or how they will behave towards us. However, it’s possible to mentally prepare for social interactions that happen regularly.
For example, greeting colleagues in the morning, making small talk in the breakroom, and listening carefully to other people in meetings are all common interactions that many of us have to deal with at work.
There’s no need to rehearse or plan exactly what you want to say in these situations, but a few seconds of preparation can help you to feel more confident. For instance, if you tend to freeze when a colleague says, “Hey, how was your weekend?” you could take a few moments to think about what you could say in response before you go into the office on Monday morning.
8. Aim to be a helpful person
Helping others requires you to focus on something other than yourself, which can help you to feel less self-conscious and awkward. Every day, challenge yourself to do at least one thing to make your colleagues’ lives easier. For example, you could offer to tidy up the breakroom when it isn’t your turn or offer to take over a minor task for an overwhelmed coworker.
9. Adapt to your surroundings
You don’t have to completely change your personality just for the sake of fitting in. But other people may find it easier to trust you and find you more approachable when you follow the unspoken rules of the workplace.
For example, if you work in a laidback environment, your colleagues might find it harder to relate to you if you dress or speak in a very formal way. It can help to take cues from your colleagues if you aren’t sure what to do. For example, if your colleagues sometimes joke around in meetings or send light-hearted memes and messages on your team’s Slack channel, it’s probably OK to do the same.
10. Learn to regulate your emotions at work
In general, you need to keep your feelings in check when you’re at work. Otherwise, you risk undermining your relationships and alienating your coworkers. For example, if you become openly frustrated and angry when a task proves harder than you expected, you may come across as unprofessional or intimidating.
To manage your feelings at work, it may help to:
- Learn your personal warning signs. For instance, you may notice that you tend to get short-tempered with people when you’re under pressure to meet a deadline.
- Learn a few simple breathing exercises you can do at work. You could try square breathing or just take deep breaths in through your nose and out through your mouth for a couple of minutes.
- Use music to calm yourself down. Put together a playlist of calming sounds or music you can listen to during stressful moments.
11. Practice interpersonal skills outside of work
As a general rule, the more often you practice your interpersonal skills, the stronger they’ll become. As you go about your day-to-day life, look for opportunities to interact with other people.
For example, when you go to the grocery store, make small talk with the cashier or your hairstylist. You could also sign up for activities that give you lots of opportunities to interact with other people, like improv classes. If you want to improve your public speaking skills, consider joining Toastmasters.
12. Ask for feedback on your interpersonal skills
Sometimes, other people can help us figure out which skills we need to work on. Take a proactive approach and ask for feedback. For example, if you have a performance review coming up, take the opportunity to ask your manager what you need to work on. You could say, “I’d like to improve my people skills. What do you think I should look at first?”
Alternatively, you could ask a trusted friend, family member, or colleague for their opinion. You may also be able to record yourself speaking to other people or video yourself when giving a presentation. But you need to respect your coworkers’ privacy, so make sure you have their permission before you record them.
13. Develop empathy
Empathy is the ability to see a situation from another person’s point of view. It’s a valuable skill that can help improve your work relationships by building trust. When you’re willing to take the time to consider an issue from someone else’s perspective, you may also find it easier to resolve conflicts and misunderstandings.
You can become a more empathetic person by:
- Listening carefully when someone tells you about their experiences and trying to imagine yourself in their position.
- Reading or watching media, such as books or movies, created about or by people with lives very different from your own.
- When someone says or does something that puzzles you, don’t assume they are incompetent. From their perspective, their behavior might make sense. Tell yourself, “I don’t know why they are acting this way, but from their perspective, they probably think they’re doing the right thing.”
- Meditate. Research shows that just one 15-minute meditation session can boost your empathy. If you’ve never meditated before, try an app such as SmilingMind, or listen to a guided meditation.
14. Develop your sense of humor
Sharing a joke with your colleagues can make a dull day go by a bit quicker and improve your working relationships. In addition, research shows that using humor at work can boost team performance. Even if you’re not naturally witty, you can learn to use humor in conversation. Our guide on how to be funny contains practical tips to help you appreciate the lighter side of life.
15. Learn from your socially skilled colleagues
Some of your colleagues are probably more skilled at dealing with people than others. Pay close attention to these coworkers; you may be able to pick up some lessons.
For example, if one of your colleagues tends to make everyone feel more positive and motivated, try to pin down the traits or behaviors that give their coworkers a lift. Perhaps they always make a point of greeting everyone with a warm smile, or maybe they try to reframe setbacks as learning opportunities.
16. Show appreciation to your colleagues
Look out for opportunities to say “Thank you” to your colleagues. Showing appreciation can make both the giver and receiver feel good. If a colleague has gone out of their way to lend you a hand, you could write them a thank-you note or, if your workplace has an employee recognition scheme, put them forward for an award.
17. Avoid passing on harmful gossip
Some people use gossip to bond with their coworkers. It may seem harmless, but gossip can undermine working relationships and make it hard for people to trust one another at work. As a general rule, if you wouldn’t say something to someone’s face, don’t say it behind their back.
18. Be mindful of your body language
Body language is a social skill because it has a big effect on how other people perceive you. Research has shown that we tend to judge other people on the basis of their nonverbal communication, so try thinking about the kind of impression you create.
To come across as personable yet professional, remember the following:
- Maintain eye contact when talking to someone. However, be careful not to stare.
- Sit or stand with an upright (but not rigid) posture.
- Relax the muscles in your jaw and face.
- Look straight ahead. Tilting your chin upwards can make you appear superior or arrogant, and tilting your head downward can make you appear submissive or lacking in confidence.
Read our guide to confident body language for more ideas.
19. Learn how to accept constructive criticism
It’s normal to get constructive criticism at work, for example, as part of a performance review. The way you respond to criticism can leave a lasting impression. If you accept it calmly and gracefully, your coworkers and manager will probably see you as professional, socially skilled, and responsible.
Here are a few tips that can help you accept criticism:
- Say “thank you.” Unless the feedback was clearly destructive or mean-spirited, thank the other person for their thoughts; it takes time and effort to put together constructive criticism.
- Avoid becoming defensive. Instead, ask yourself, “What can I learn from this?” Remember that your supervisor should be giving you feedback on your work, not passing judgment on you as a person.
- Ask for clarification if you didn’t understand the feedback.
- Ask how you can improve; this shows that you are willing to take the feedback on board.
- Ask for extra training if you need it. Your manager will probably be impressed if you take the initiative, and requesting extra help shows self-awareness.
20. Learn to apologize effectively
Almost everyone makes mistakes at work. Fortunately, in most cases, a sincere apology can help save or repair a professional relationship.
Here’s how to apologize:
- Acknowledge what you did.
- Acknowledge how your actions affected the other individual.
- Explain what you will do differently in the future to ensure you don’t make the same mistake again.
- Avoid making excuses or blaming someone else for your mistake.
For example, you might say, “Jan, I’m sorry that I didn’t prepare the new training materials in time for the training seminar. I know my mistake caused you a lot of stress because you had to prepare new material at the last minute. I know I’ve got to work on my time management, so I’m trying out a new time management app to help me prioritize my tasks. ”
21. Practice assertive communication
Assertive communication involves making your needs clear while also respecting other people’s rights and boundaries. Assertiveness can improve the quality of your relationships and help you resolve conflicts, so it can help you get along with people at work.
Here are a few ways to be more assertive:
- Make your needs and boundaries clear. For example, you might say, “I’m happy to do some occasional overtime, but I need a few days’ notice because I have to arrange childcare.”
- Use I-statements to assert yourself without putting the other person on the defensive. For example, “I feel as though I’m being asked to take on too much work” is better than “You always give me too much work to do.”
- Speak in a confident tone of voice. Avoid mumbling or using lots of filler words like “um” or “er.”
- Fight fair. Do not resort to name-calling, put-downs, or dragging up the past when you’re trying to resolve a conflict. Instead, try to find a win-win solution that benefits everyone.
For more tips, see our guide on how to be more assertive.
22. Practice your active listening skills
Active listening can significantly improve your professional relationships. It can help you build rapport with coworkers and customers, resolve conflicts, and understand exactly what other people need from you.
Here are some ways to become a better listener and come across as more engaged:
- Never interrupt someone unless it’s an emergency.
- Minimize distractions. Put your phone away, and don’t try to work on something and have a conversation at the same time.
- When someone else is talking, try not to rehearse your answer. Instead, wait until they have finished, then decide how you want to respond.
- Use short phrases and encouraging sounds like “Go on” and “Mm-hm” to signal it’s OK for them to keep talking.
We have an in-depth guide on how to be a better listener that will help you build this skill.
Why is it important to have good interpersonal skills at work?
Good interpersonal skills can make you happier and more effective at work. Here are a few of the benefits:
- Increased job satisfaction: If you have strong interpersonal skills, you’ll probably find it easier to make friends at work, which can make your job more enjoyable and satisfying.
- Better professional networks: If you have a solid professional network, you might find it easier to get a new job in your industry when it’s time to leave your current role.
- Increased chance of promotion to senior positions: Interpersonal skills are key to effective leadership, so if you want to be promoted to a management role, demonstrating great interpersonal skills may help.
- Access to social support: Everyone has tough days at work. But if you have positive relationships with your coworkers, you might be able to call on them for support.