Can Interpersonal Communication Be Taught in the Workplace?

More business leaders tell us that employees today are weaker at interpersonal communication than ever before.

Is it too late to learn excellent interpersonal communication skills when you are already active in the workplace? Of course not!

What is “Skilled” Interpersonal Communication?

First, what does “skilled” interpersonal communication look like in real life?

Attentive listing, observing, and reading; perceiving and empathizing; effective and appropriate use of words, tone, expressions, and gestures — verbal, written, and otherwise; one-on-one and in groups; in-person and remotely.

More and more business leaders and managers at every level tell us employees today — especially younger, less experienced employees — are weaker at interpersonal communication than workers in the past.

Is that simply because we are all becoming so accustomed to communicating with our devices and losing the ability to communicate well in person and on the phone?

That’s undoubtedly a big part of the story: Communication practices are habits, and most of us are increasingly in the habit of remote informal staccato and relatively low-stakes interpersonal communication because of their constant use of hand-held devices and the more social media and instant messaging.

Interpersonal communication and other “people” skills are “other orientation,” paying close attention to the signals of those with whom one interacts without getting distracted and responding to those signals effectively and appropriately. But people today, isolated as so many of us are, become very self-focused. Plus, we are perpetually distracted. As we become less accustomed to engaging in person, perhaps our powers of interpersonal perception are diminishing.

Think of it this way: Have you ever had a big misunderstanding (or fight) with someone via text messaging? Often that happens partly because words alone, incredibly informal staccato messages, are very easy to misunderstand. That’s because tone, expressions, and gestures are a big part of how humans communicate. So much meaning is lost or misconstrued in texts. Now throw in the social media dimension – in which communication is an interactive performance among peers (or not even peers, but the virtual personas of peers). This is the information environment in which more and more of us are honing our interpersonal communication practices. Even many in-person interactions are increasingly underwritten and mediated by social media network relationships.

There is a structure in most workplaces. Nonetheless, a shocking amount of the critical communication in most workplaces is essentially ad hoc, hit and miss: There is a lot of ‘touching base’ and ‘call me if you need me’ and mediocre meetings and long multi-recipient email chains, but there is usually way too little regular structured communication. No wonder most people don’t realize that the burden is on them to ensure their interpersonal communication at work is more structured and substantive.

Changing Communication Habits

Communication habits can be changed like any other habit, but it is not easy.

Putting more structure and substance into your communication- regular structured one-on-one dialogues – will allow you to practice interacting more professionally. Over time, learn to prepare better and better agendas for your one-on-ones; increasingly organized, clear, and focused.

Here’s why you should care about improving your people skills: Even though it seems like your interactions with other people are a matter of personal style there are proven best practices for workplace communication. When people do not follow communication best practices, things are much more likely to go wrong. Poor communication is the number one cause of unnecessary problems – great and small – in the workplace.

Poor communication also leads to suboptimal workplace relationships, including conflicts between and among employees.

No matter where you work or what you do, good interpersonal communication skills will help you get ahead faster. Poor interpersonal communication skills will always hold you back. Some people are known for being great to work with, while others are known for being difficult. In either case, that’s almost always a commentary on the person’s communication practices. You want to be known as someone who is excellent to work with.

Best Practices

That means you need to learn best practices and build new habits to…

  • learn how to tune in to other people and read them more effectively;
  • take on the burden of putting more structure and substance into your communication with key people;
  • -earn best practices for expressing yourself more effectively – one-on-one and in groups, whether in person or remotely.

Suppose you learn those best practices and develop better habits. In that case, you will avoid many more unnecessary problems, build much better workplace relationships, and gain a reputation as one of those people with whom others want to work.

12 Rules to Get Started

How can you get started right away? Well, you can start with twelve simple rules:

  1. Pay attention! Listen twice as much as you talk and listen carefully; keep your eyes peeled; and read carefully anything worth reading.
  2. Focus! Never interrupt or let your mind wander when others are speaking.
  3. Empathize! Always try to imagine yourself in the other person’s position.
  4. Respect! Exhibit respect, kindness, courtesy, and good manners.
  5. Prepare! Prepare in advance before meetings or one-on-one conversations so you are brief, direct, and clear; and practice good email and instant message ‘hygiene’.
  6. Responsibility! Take personal responsibility for everything you say and do.
  7. Always take your commitments and responsibilities seriously.
  8. Always give people credit for their achievements, no matter how small.
  9. Never take yourself too seriously… or feel sorry for yourself.
  10. make excuses when you make a mistake.
  11. Never blame or complain.
  12. Never speak of a problem unless you have thought of at least one potential solution.