People skills

I do have fucking people skills, goddamnit. I understand Tom Smykowski’s frustration in Office Space, I really do. If you haven’t seen this gem of a movie, I highly recommend you view it as soon as humanly possible, especially if you work in an office environment. It may be outdated and nearly 15 years old but it’s still as relevant today as when it was written.

My people skills were the reason I was given the challenges of a couple strained relationships with clients at work (see my post on being set up to fail here). Apparently, despite being an introvert, I have a reputation around the office of being outgoing, approachable, and contributory to a positive work environment. Little do they know, I’m actually a real asshole sometimes. I actually genuinely abhor dealing with people even on my best days. Let’s just keep that between you and me, OK?

When you dislike something so much, and when your natural inclination is toward comfortable solitude as a result of being an only child, you often get thrown into the deep end of the social pool and forced to interact with others. My mother would tell me to go call people and say hi. She supported my interaction in a youth group for girls to get to build friendships in my formative years. I was forced to learn to deal with neuroses and thus, developed “people skills” from a young age.

I really have to wonder what would qualify a legitimate selfish asshole to have wonderful people skills. So I did a little research to break it down. Let’s see what people skills really mean. By the way, I openly admit here to having to do research despite taking a communications course in college, as I have fried all the brain cells relevant to that class, which I can neither confirm nor deny showing up to drunk multiple times, including the final group presentation.

The first and possibly most important component of people skills is communication. This is the ability to take in information, clarify comments and participate in effective verbal and written exchanges. Communication isn’t just developing your own message and getting it across. It involves active listening to others and the messages they are sending. There are words, but there is also so much more: eye contact, body language, verbal and nonverbal cues, and facial expressions to name a few. The goal of the communication must be acknowledged between the parties – are they or you there to motivate, to persuade, or simply just to provide information?

Communication skills, written, verbal, and nonverbal, require a level of empathy to be effective. We are all human beings (unless you, like me, also engage in full two-sided conversations with your cats and dogs), and at the core of this humanity is our emotions, mental state, and the “space” we occupy at the time of the communication. Empathy, as opposed to sympathy, is the ability to have a visceral understanding of what another person is going through. Sympathy is not empathy – you can have sympathy for someone whose father passed away, as you can imagine, even if your own father has not passed away. Someone who is empathetic may have also had their father pass away, and gets it just that little bit more because they have shared in that experience. Empathy requires putting yourself in another person’s shoes and recognizing the thoughts, emotions and experiences that person is having. This is where the golden rule comes in – treat people how you’d like to be treated. If someone is having a hard day, maybe soften the communication a bit if you think it will land badly with the person with whom you’re speaking.

In my career, I’ve had some amazing examples at how to suck at giving hard feedback. There have been times I’ve been passed over for promotion, or really screwed up on a project, and I didn’t take the feedback very well as a result of the way it was communicated to me. When you think about the impact you want your feedback/constructive criticism to have, you want the person to take it on board, digest it, and then work hard to show improvement in this space. You need to word it and deliver it in a way that makes the person feel like righting that wrong is achievable, and that they feel supported to try again. If you really want your feedback to fall on deaf ears and come across as a douchebag, then you just go ahead and be blunt, don’t think about the head space that person is in, and just drop the bomb and run. Congratulations, you’ve learned how to be unsuccessful at managing people and “how to lose friends and alienate people” (that too, is a great movie).

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Some people are completely incapable of empathy. There is a level of emotional intelligence required to monitor not only other’s emotions, but your own. Have you ever met someone with a high EQ, or a great inclination toward emotional intelligence? They seem to know their own emotions, strengths, weaknesses, drives, values and goals, and then take it a step further to recognize their impact on others.

If you work in management, as I do, a huge part of development and application of people skills means having a proclivity for conflict resolution. This is a HUGE part of my responsibility at work. Daily, I find myself mediating disputes and resolving conflict among customers and colleagues. This is where your internal lawyer/mediator needs to come out. You have to have the ability to clarify a specific dispute, not get emotional or take it personally, and listen in a non-judgmental manner to both perspectives. The whole point of conflict resolution is to offer suggestions for reaching an equitable compromise and demonstrate a willingness to work together to resolve the issue. Everyone wants the issue gone. Holding on to grudges, grievances, and getting emotionally invested to only get your way will never resolve the conflict, and simply wastes everyone’s time. The key here is while you may be burning, nay, fuming, on the inside, you can’t be aggressive, and for it to work, both sides need to win. While I may have a knack for conflict resolution from years of experience, it doesn’t mean I enjoy it. I’d rather have no conflict to resolve. Why can’t we all just get along?

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I think the biggest underlying skill necessary for conflict resolution is patience. Patience is something I still continue to struggle with today. My latest temper tantrum when I ran out of patience was not pretty. Let’s just say I got quite vocal and verbal about the fat neon white guy blocking my perfect Yosemite picture. I was incapable of maintaining an even temper, to repeat and explain information as necessary, and to control anger in even the most trying situations. The anger won, but hey, I got my shot. So I won too. Patience requires self-awareness and self-regulation – you need to adapt to changing circumstances whilst redirecting disruptive or unproductive emotions.

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Finally, people skills include tolerance. You must have the ability to accept differences, even when you don’t personally agree with or condone them. As an out and proud lesbian in the San Francisco community, tolerance is a dirty word, because to me, it means you don’t really embrace the person’s difference, you just put up with it. I’ve learned, though, that not everyone’s differences need to be embraced. When someone is wrong, I have learned to let it go and not feel the need to convince them they’re wrong. I just sit quietly and let them marinate in their wrongness. I tolerate their wrong point of view, and move on with my life. It’s not ideal, and I’d love to embrace them. They aren’t going to change though, or at least, I can’t change them. So it’s ok to just tolerate in this instance.

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In all of this, I would say people skills require building relationships built on honesty, comfort, familiarity, respect, and trust. While sometimes I’d love to live an insular life, impervious to idiots and difficult people, I simply can’t. Hrmph. People. Can’t live with ‘em. Can’t live without ‘em.


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