Twenty Time-Tested Tactics for Improving Your People Skills By Michael Zigarelli
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 an exhaustive list, 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.
Don’t complain: It’s been said (and rightly so) that we 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 scriptures to quip-tures (yes, I know that’s not a word, but it does rhyme nicely), consider the Apostle Paul’s admonition to the Philippians: “Do everything without complaining or arguing” (Phil. 2:14).
1. Don’t complain. It doesn’t get you very far because people tend to react negatively to toxic talk. Instead, offer potential solutions when you identify problems, or say nothing at all.
2. Smile a lot: Check out that mug of yours in the mirror. Do you usually have a “no” face or a “yes” face? Does your expression tell the world to leave you alone or that you’re friendly and approachable? My guess is that Jesus smiled a lot. After all, the fruit of the Spirit is joy.
Try this out, just for today. I’m serious–experiment with this. Make yourself smile, even if you don’t feel like it. Do it consistently throughout the day and then watch how others respond to you. You’ll be pleasantly surprised (and they might 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 really 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 nothing incenses a speaker quite like the feeling of being ignored; repetition because the speaker will try to remedy the problem by repeating what he or she just said.
But try this instead. Make a real 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. Then, in reciprocation, he’ll be more likely to listen to you.
You’ll reap what you sow here. Communication will improve, guaranteed. So will 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: Lack of affirmation and respect may be reaching epidemic proportions in our narcissistic society. At home, at work, and everywhere else, people seem to be starving to hear that they’re important and relevant. So feed them. Let them know you think they’re working real hard, that they’re doing a great job–that they’re contributing, that who they are and what they do has genuine value. Try it with your spouse, with your employees, with your friends, with your pastor. Be an encourager and an affirmer. There is no straighter pathway to building up people and building your relationships.
5. Show your appreciation: Gratitude is a cousin of affirmation. When someone has expended some effort from which you benefit–even if it’s something they’re expected 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 mailman 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 become interested in those around you. This person is a secretary and a mother? Ask about the job and about her kids. That person has a Star Trek shirt. Ask about Star Trek. It doesn’t matter that you don’t really care about Mr. Spock or understand that ear condition of his. 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.
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 hard time.
7. Remember every name: Some people have an uncanny ability for remembering 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 do whatever it takes to make that sweet sound. You’ll do more than impress them. You’ll make them feel memorable.
8. Make a sacrifice for them: Words are powerful, but few of your words will be more treasured than a sincere sacrifice of time or money on your part. So get in the habit of identifying and meeting people’s needs. Be kind. Put their needs ahead of your own. Let the overworked mother drop off her kids at your house for an afternoon and then tell her you’ll take care of returning them. And while you’re at it, bring a pizza for their dinner. When that mom thanks you lavishly for going out of your way to bring dinner, just say: “hey, the pizza place was only an extra mile!” She’ll get it.
Nothing–nothing–will earn you more real friends than sacrifice. And if you’re evangelically-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 make fun of yourself. In a world where people are so full of themselves and incessantly concerned about communicating 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: Lots of research bears witness to what might already be obvious to you: we’re more likely to be influenced by people who are similar to us. If you’ve been there too, if you’ve endured their pain, if you look and talk and dress like they do, they’ll probably like you more. They’ll listen to you more. They’ll confide in you more.
So center on the similar. Even if you have a scant one percent commonality with somebody at work, focus 100 percent of your conversation on that commonality when you can. Some people call that the “101 Percent Principle.” Others call it being “as shrewd as a serpent.”
11. Create “social relaxation”: That has nothing to do with offering your guest an easy chair. It has everything to do with creating an environment where people are relaxed in your presence and feel comfortable talking to you. How do you do that? For the most part, through an amalgam of the practices listed here. Smile, compliment them, focus on their needs, and express a real interest in them.
Ease into tougher discussions–warm-up to them–rather than being so direct. And always show them you are paying attention by making good eye contact, by nodding your head when you understand what they’re saying, and by squarely facing them rather than sitting at an angle. Be genuine, transparent, and accepting–even loving–and you will almost always reap the same in return.
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. Believe me, they’ll certainly listen to that! As you do, you’ll make it safer for them to own up to their faults.
13. Don’t assume you’re right: This assumption derails more conversations, starts more fights, and extinguishes more potentially great ideas 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.
When I assume that my opinion is right and that someone who disagrees with me is wrong, I’ve lost the opportunity to learn from that person and to generate a win-win solution. Moreover, I just seem to get more entrenched in my position.
That’s stubborn. That’s folly. And that’s pride. I should humbly accept that I don’t have all the answers, and that someone–even someone who is criticizing me–might have a good point.
If you sometimes have this problem too, one remedy is to change your mind-set–to consider the dialogue a “learning conversation.” That is, conceptualize the conversation as an opportunity to learn something, rather than as a joust.
Glean what you can from the other person. 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. Once we make that mental leap from pushing our point to engaging in a learning conversation, we reap self-improvement, better ideas, and better relationships. And we reduce 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. Repeat after me: “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. You’ll then look just like the person you’re talking to.
15. Never, ever gossip — ever: Many people don’t even realize they’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 someone who’s not in the conversation, think first about why you’re really saying it. Then, in most cases, bite your lip.
16. Don’t interrupt when someone is speaking: And never complete their thought for them either. These behaviors infuriate most people. If you have this problem, re-read practice #3 (active listening). Then, make a new screen saver for yourself 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 excommunicate 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 clear when our brains are clouded by anger. And then we get even angrier–at ourselves for not communicating well–spiraling the problem. Just step away and count to thirty. Yeah, yeah–that approach is cliche, but I’ll tell you something: it works.
One quick corollary while we’re on the topic: never send an email when you’re mad. Same rule, different venue. If you send it, your diatribe will be on record for all posterity! So just say no to angry emails.
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, you need to take inventory regularly regarding how you’re doing. Reflect on your people skills often and then find ways to improve on your weaknesses.
20. Practice these practices: People skills are like any other skills. The more you use them, the more adept you become. So if you’re serious about “perfecting” your people skills, there’s no shortcut. Only practice will make perfect