I sat down after finding my name inscribed in calligraphy on the place card. It was a delightful night to be out on the town — the warm, summer breezes and city lights danced well together to create a jovial spirit for this fundraising event. Though I knew no one in attendance–yet–my plan was to turn on my extroverted switch and add some new acquaintances to my social network on this festive evening.
Within moments a good-looking couple sat to my right, holding hands, and a few others filtered in across the way, but the seat to my left remained empty. The table was so large that conversation with guests across the expanse of linens and silk flower arrangements would be in vain, so I decided to hone in on the lovebirds. But despite my open-ended inquiries, it was quickly obvious that they’d rather spend the evening whispering in each other’s ear rather than engage with me, which was fine, but left me sitting alone.
As our salad plates were cleared, she swept in and sat to my left. Attractive, mid-forties, with short, well-coiffed hair, a smart navy business suit, and power pumps. She was one of those very-well-put-together business professionals that somehow always left me feeling inadequate. But that was my issue, not hers. Masking my intimidation, I smiled confidently and put out my hand for the firm-enough-but-not-too-firm handshake and welcomed her to our table. She looked me over with a nonchalant glance, pursed her lips, and began texting someone (obviously more important than me) as she sat down.
Not one to be quickly daunted, as she finished her text I introduced myself and asked her about her work. As she answered, with a clipped, succinct sentences, I hurriedly formulated my own response in my head. I honestly didn’t hear a word she said, as I was contemplating what I could possibly say when she asked about me that would make her raise her perfectly plucked eyebrows with interest. I never got my chance. She didn’t reciprocate nor showed any interest in conversing. After several failed attempts to draw her out, I caved and turned to my chicken dijon with rice until the presentation began. So much for connecting that evening. It just wasn’t going to happen.
There is a quality of social and emotional intelligence called interpersonal effectiveness, and it’s the ability to tune into others with compassion and sensitivity. You know the type. They have a contagious, positive enthusiasm that puts you at ease the moment you meet them. They demonstrate a genuine interest in you and you can tell they actually want to know you. These people possess exceptional listening skills, interact smoothly with others, and are able to make even the most uncomfortable situations comfortable.
Not only were my table partners lacking this quality that night, but so was I. Instead of knowing how to navigate the icy situation with my well-dressed companion, I eventually mirrored her coldness and gave up. The once-cheerful evening quickly became a disappointment and I longed for dessert to be served, not so the decadent sweetness could delight my mouth, but because it signaled the welcome end of an uncomfortable evening.
Does it matter if we really connect well with others? Theodore Roosevelt stated,
“The most important single ingredient in the formula of success is knowing how to get along with people.”
I admire people who can build rapport with all types, no matter the situation. But specifically in the workplace, interpersonal skills are an important value add because it is our relationships, with bosses, managers, coworkers and customers, that — get this — have the greatest impact on our happiness and contentment in our roles, more so than our workload or tasks or responsibilities or opportunities. (https://www.forbes.com/sites/chriscancialosi/2014/09/22/4-reasons-social-capital-trumps-all/#352a5e0e7b24)
“Financial capital is the funding you need to get off the ground, sustain growth, and develop operations. Human capital is the team that brings value to your organization. And while both are essential resources for your business, social capital — the connections and shared values that exist between people and enable cooperation — is the key to entrepreneurial success.” — Chris Cancialosi
If you’ve ever experienced conflict with those you work with, you understand the depth of stress these strained relationships can cause, and we all know the ill-effects of stress, let alone it being downright miserable. Interpersonal relationships also directly affect our productivity. If you’re a leader with disengaged employees, prepare yourself to watch your resources wash right down the drain. Studies show that companies with engaged employees earn twice the net income of those with disengaged employees. How does the saying go? “75% of people quit their bosses, not their jobs.” When you have a chance, check out this surprising infographic of stats: https://www.dailyinfographic.com/10-shocking-statistics-about-employee-engagement-infographic
Max Messmer, who wrote Managing Your Career for Dummies, says this:
“Your career success in the workplace of today – independent of technical expertise – depends on the quality of your people skills.”
How do you know if your interpersonal skills could use some work? Self-awareness is a key, and if that is lacking, we may miss how we come across, and may need the help of an outside opinion. If you have a close friend and/or colleague that will be up front with you, and you’re feeling brave, ask them these questions:
- Is the first impression I give cold or warm/inviting?
- Do I ever come across arrogant or unapproachable?
- Am I a good listener or do you feel I’m too quick to share my own stories, opinions, and insights?
- Do you feel safe to come talk to me about anything?
- Do you feel like I know you well? Do I allow you to truly know me?
- Do I ever come across like I’m judging you or devaluing your viewpoint?
If you don’t have someone who’ll give you honest responses, you may consider working with a life coach to do a 360 assessment, where others have an opportunity to evaluate you. These can be very eye-opening and give you revealing insight as to how you come across as you interact with others. The beauty of a 360 as well is that the raters can remain anonymous which encourages participant authenticity.
In the meantime, in the words of Stephen Covey, “Seek first to understand.” Try focusing on just one of these suggestions this week to see if you can begin to make a shift in your interpersonal effectiveness:
- Ask open-ended questions. Most people like to talk about themselves, and rarely get asked how they are feeling. Learn to draw people out.
- Make yourself maintain eye contact if you are one who tends to look “out there” when communicating. Don’t they say the eyes are the window to the soul?
- Force yourself to listen and not be thinking about what you’ll say next. I’m terrible at this. This can be tricky, especially if you’re concerned about having the perfect response. Really tune into what they are trying to communicate by staying present in the moment.
- Watch for cues that demonstrate not only what they’re saying, but not saying. Is your presence making them uncomfortable? Are they bored because you are talking too much about yourself? Did your last comment make them wince? Again, watch for reactions in the eyes.
- Develop an understanding of cultural, religious, socioeconomic, and gender differences. It’s too easy to offend someone by our ignorance. Read, read, read to educate yourself about diversity.
- Withhold judgment. It’s one thing to have your own opinion. It’s another to think it’s your way or the highway. Remain open to new ideas and ways of doing things.
- Share details about yourself when appropriate. The whys are much more interesting than the whats. Learn to be a storyteller.
- Check your own non-verbals. Are you frowning? Are your arms crossed? Are you fidgeting? And by all means don’t check your phone while others are trying to talk with you!
- Ban complaining. No one wants to hear it, really, and it puts colleagues in an uncomfortable position. (“If I nod, then they think I agree, if I don’t, they think I’m not being supportive…!”). Find a close friend to share your struggles with — or a counselor or coach — but make an effort to keep complaints and negativity out of relationships, especially at the office.
There will of course be people that we just can’t connect with. It’s normal. But with some brushing up on our interpersonal skills, we can at least make those situations a little more tolerable, if not pleasant.