20 Time-Honored Tactics to Improve Your People Skills

Michael Zigarelli

From: Management by Proverbs, Moody Press 1999; Xulon Press, 2008. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

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Here’s a news item that might surprise you. It’s a conclusion from a Wall Street Journal survey of more than 2,000 corporate recruiters: “Interpersonal communication and other so-called soft skills are what corporate recruiters crave most, but find most elusive in MBA programs.”

Did you get that? Communication skills. Interpersonal skills. People skills. That’s what recruiters are looking for more than anything else when they seek to fill management slots. Sure, the recruiters want the “hard” skills, too. They want you to know strategy and economics, how to analyze the financials, how to examine statistical data. But the soft skills are currently king of the skill hill. Perhaps they should have been all along.

Need more evidence of the value of people skills? Listen to the recruits as well as to the recruiters. A survey of 1,500 graduates from eighteen full-time MBA programs, conducted by the leading B-school accrediting body, found that graduates rated “one-on-one communication” as the most important workplace skill. However, only six percent of these alums considered their business school better than “moderately effective” in helping them develop in that area.

The bottom line: People who can get things done through others — those who can persuade, those who can motivate, those who are liked and who get along well with others — stand the best chance at becoming effective leaders in the workplace (and the best chance at getting the jobs in the first place). It’s hardly path-breaking, though. We’ve known this for decades. Just look at How to Win Friends and Influence People, the perennial bestseller. It made the same argument as far back as 1936.

Want to be a great leader? Want to succeed in your career? The word is out: your interpersonal skills are critical. At work, in the home, at church, around the neighborhood and just about everyplace else, these skills can make or break your ability to get things done.

A Plethora of Powerful Practices

A quick truth-in-advertising disclaimer: what’s said in this article has been said before. These human relations practices certainly predate me and they predate 1936. In fact, they’ve been handed down through the ages. They are time-honored and battle-tested. They’ve been published in myriad forms by myriad authors. That’s because they’re powerful practices. They work. They’ll improve your life and the lives of those around you.

The list below is not exhaustive, of course. You could no doubt add to it. But I hope that you’ll find it to be a helpful primer for how you can perfect your own people skills.


1. Don’t complain. It’s been said, and rightly so, that you shouldn’t bother complaining. Eighty percent of the people won’t care and the other twenty percent think you deserve what you’re getting! But if you prefer the Bible to bumper stickers, consider the Apostle Paul’s admonition: “Do everything without complaining or arguing” (Phil. 2:14).

So don’t complain. It doesn’t get you anywhere because people have their own burdens to carry. Instead, offer potential solutions when you identify problems, or say nothing at all.

2. Smile a lot. The next time you look in a mirror, consider this: Do you have more of a “no” face or a “yes” face? Does your expression tell the world to leave you alone, or that you’re friendly and approachable?

If, like mine, it’s more no than yes, try this out. Do an experiment, just for today. Smile more often, even if you don’t feel like it. Do it consistently throughout the day and then watch how others respond to you. You might be pleasantly surprised (and they will be, too).

3. Listen closely and actively. When I was in grade school, my grandfather often said to me (in a distinctly Italian accent): “You hear but you don’t listen!” He was usually right. I could parrot back what was said to me, but I didn’t always process it, much less obey it.

When it comes to interpersonal relations, that’s a blunder bigger than the lasagna that mama used to make. And the result is frustration and repetition—frustration because people hate being ignored; repetition because they’ll try to remedy the problem by repeating what they just said.

Try this instead. Make a genuine effort to listen to everything that’s being said to you. Concentrate on it, rather than letting your mind wander to something more interesting—or to what you want to say in response. Then, especially if there is the potential for disagreement or misunderstanding, paraphrase what the person has attempted to communicate to you. Be patient here and briefly summarize his concerns, points, or ramblings as a preface to your own rejoinder. That person will know that he’s been heard and, in reciprocation, he’ll be more likely to listen to you.

You’ll reap what you sow here. Communication will improve and so might the relationship. And you’ll never again have to worry about getting tugged around by the ear because you hear but you don’t listen.

4. Make them feel important. The bigger the world gets, the smaller we feel. In fact, people are starving to hear that they’re important, or at least relevant. So feed them. Let them know you see they’re working hard, that they’re doing a good job, that they’re making a contribution that matters—that who they are and what they do has genuine value.

Try it with your spouse, your kids, your employees, and your friends. Even that alienated extended-family member. Be an encourager and an affirmer. There is no straighter path to building up people and building your relationships.

5. Say “thank you” more than you think you should. Gratitude is a cousin of affirmation. When someone has made an effort from which you benefit—even if it’s something they’re expected or paid to do—let them know that you appreciate it. Make a habit of expressing gratitude. People feel entitled to it and when it’s withheld, resentment fills the vacuum. By contrast, when you express gratitude, you can instantly make that person’s day.

So thank your spouse for taking out the trash or for doing the dishes, not just for the special things. Thank your employees for their effort, even if it doesn’t always produce fruit. Thank the mail carrier for being so reliable. Then watch their faces brighten. Gratitude costs you nothing and it gives them much. Awesome ROI.

6. Talk about their interests. Try this the next time you’re at some stuffy social function. Make a game of it, if you’d like. Rather than hoping for opportunities to tell people how great you are, and rather than just making small talk about the five-day forecast, talk about the other person’s interests. Set yourself aside for the evening and learn about those around you. This person is an office manager and a mother? Ask about the job and about her kids. That person has a Star Wars shirt? Ask about Star Wars. It doesn’t matter that you don’t really care about Yoda or understand that his backward grammar. The person you’re speaking to is a fan, so start there.

People love to talk about their interests, so give them the opportunity to do so. They’ll remember you for it, too, since you’ve basically given them a gift that’s increasingly rare in our narcissistic society.

By the way, this technique works outside of parties as well. Try it the next time you see that neighbor who’s been giving you a cold shoulder.

7. Remember every name. Some people have an uncanny ability to remember names. The rest of us find creative ways to hide the fact that we’ve forgotten them. “Hello, friend. Oh, hi there buddy. Welcome, brother. Great to see all of you again!”

It’s been said that someone’s name is the sweetest word that person ever hears, so make that sweet sound often. You’ll do more than impress them. You’ll make them feel memorable.

8. Make a sacrifice for them. Words are powerful, but a sincere sacrifice of time or money is often even better. Get in the habit of identifying and meeting people’s needs. Be kind. Put their needs ahead of your own.

Nothing—nothing—will earn you more real friends than sacrifice. And if you’re evangelistically-minded, nothing will earn you the right to be heard on important issues like your faith.

9. Use self-depreciating humor. Don’t hesitate to poke fun at yourself. In a world where people are full of themselves and often hint at their own importance, self-depreciating humor can instantly make you attractive. So go ahead, make fun of your flaws. Knock yourself down a few notches. Paradoxically, it will probably raise you up in the eyes of others.

10. Focus on your similarities. A mountain of research bears witness to what might be obvious, but what we sometimes forget: We’re more likely to be influenced by people who are similar to us than by those who are different. If you’ve been where they are—if you’ve endured their pain or shared an experience—or even if you look and talk and dress like they do, they’ll be more likely to connect with you. To listen to you. Even to confide in you. Center on the similar.

11. Create “social relaxation.” That has nothing to do with offering your guest a comfortable chair. It has everything to do with creating an environment where people are at ease in your presence and feel comfortable talking to you.

How? For the most part, through an amalgam of the practices listed here. Smile, compliment them, express a real interest in them and so on. But it also happens through non-verbal behaviors that imply you care: eye contact, listening empathetically, nodding in understanding, facing them squarely rather than sitting at an angle. When you put people at ease, you’re more likely to have a substantive conversation.

12.  Talk about your own mistakes while raising theirs. You might be a perfectionist, but you’re not perfect. If you want to get somebody to listen to you about mistakes they’ve made, start by identifying your own. They’ll certainly listen to that! As you do, you’ll make it safer for them to own up to their faults. Consider it in your next performance review, or your next argument at home.

13. Don’t assume you’re right. This assumption derails more conversations, fuels more fights, and extinguishes more win-win solutions than any other. I’m not always right; that’s pretty obvious. But in a conversation or a debate, that somehow becomes less obvious to me. And then it creates problems.

Frankly, that’s just ego. Pride. Proverbs calls it folly. But here’s a way forward from The Harvard Negotiation Project: Mentally reframe the dialogue a “learning conversation” rather than an argument. Conceptualize it as an opportunity to glean what you can from the other person as you make your own case. Maybe your colleague really does have some information you don’t. Maybe your mother-in-law actually does have some wisdom she can pass along to you.

Making this mental leap from “telling” to “learning” is game-changer. It also reduces the number of times that we’ll have to use Practice #14.

14. Apologize. Just say it. Go ahead. It won’t kill you. Besides, you probably owe it to the person. “I…was…wrong. I’m…sorry.” Tack on a “please forgive me” and you’ll be liberated indeed. Beware, though. The resulting rush of peace may cause you to smile. Then you’ll look just like the person you’re talking to.

15.  Never, ever gossip—ever. Many of us don’t even realize we’re doing it, bonding with someone by tarnishing someone else’s reputation. That’s gossip, plain and simple. If what you’re about to say undermines the reputation of a person who’s not in the conversation, think first about why you’re really saying it. Then, in most cases, bite your lip. Or change the subject.

16. Don’t interrupt when someone is speaking. And never complete their thought for them either. That sort of thing infuriates many people, whether they show it or not. If you have this problem, review Practice #3 (“Listen closely and actively”). Then put a new background on your phone that says “Shut up and listen!”

17. Never say “you’re wrong.” Think about how you felt the last time someone said those exact words to you. Did it help to resolve the problem, or did it escalate it? These words rarely persuade, so banish them from your vocabulary. And please, don’t tell me I’m wrong about this.

18. Don’t communicate when you’re angry. Sometimes it’s unavoidable, but often it’s not. Most of us do an exceedingly poor job of making our point when our brains are clouded by anger. And then we get even angrier—at ourselves for not communicating well—accelerating the problem. Just step away and count to thirty. Yeah, I know; that approach is clichéd. But it also works.

One quick corollary while we’re on the topic: Never send an email or text when you’re mad. Same rule, different medium. If you send it, your diatribe will be on record for all posterity. Just say no to angry replies.

19. Make self-examination a habit. Am I using these skills daily? Where can I improve? What’s working and what’s not? As with any self-improvement process, we need to take inventory regularly to assess how we’re doing. Reflect on your people skills often and then find ways to improve your weaker areas.

20. Practice these practices. People skills are like any other skills. The more you use them, the more adept you become. If you’re serious about “perfecting” your people skills, there’s no shortcut. Of course, practice won’t make you perfect, but it will make you better.

From: Management by Proverbs, Moody Press 1999; Xulon Press, 2008. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

Michael Zigarelli is a Professor of Leadership and Strategy at Messiah College and the editor of the Christianity9to5.org.