It’s estimated that emails, calls, and meetings have increased from 20% to 50% in the last two decades. Not only that, but about 269 billion emails are sent out around the globe each day.
We live in a highly connected time and are regularly communicating with one another. That’s why it’s crucial to have the best communication skills to build and maintain not only professional relationships but romantic and platonic ones as well.
No matter how good of a communicator you think you are, there’s always an area you can improve in. And we’re here to show you how.
What Are Interpersonal Communication Skills?
Let’s start with the basics and describe what interpersonal communication skills are.
Interpersonal communication skills are how humans communicate with each other. Minutely speaking, interpersonal communication goes down to the word choice, tonality, and facial expressions humans use when talking to one another.
Communication goes beyond the physical words you send someone in an email. Of course, grammar and syntax are important, but interpersonal communication is an art that many people lack.
So many people lack interpersonal communication skills that Jeff Weiner, the CEO of LinkedIn, said in an interview that it’s the number one skill employees of the current job market lack today.
Why do we lack communication? What is it about the art of communication that we have lost? To figure that out, let’s dissect how interpersonal communication works.
Aspects of Interpersonal Communication
A message must first be sent out into the world for people to pick up. The source of the message could be a person, multiple people, or an organization that wants to share something with another source.
The sender also encodes their message in something the receiver (who we’ll get to in a second) can understand. Encoded messages involve recognizable symbols, such as words or body language.
The receiver is the entity who, aptly, receives the message. They are the one who decodes the message or converts the symbology into something that they can understand.
Encoding and Decoding
Let’s explain encoding and decoding a bit more in-depth. This process involves messages being sent and received in ways the receiver will understand.
For example, let’s say someone smiles, looks you in the eyes, and talks to you in a relaxed tone. That person’s body language encodes a message of positivity.
Someone who isn’t on the autism spectrum disorder could quickly decode the smile, eye-contact, and relaxed tone as a sign of happiness and self-confidence on the part of the speaker. So the easier an encoded message is to decode for the receiver, the quicker they’ll understand what the sender communicates.
But let’s say another person has their arms crossed, legs crossed, but smiles at you. Smiling usually decodes as a sign of friendliness and invitation, but the closed-off body language says, “get away from me.”
The receiver, then, might be confused about the messages the sender gives off. These mixed signals lead to confusion and miscommunication, which can cause problems for the sender and receiver down the line.
Therefore, the more congruence and transparency between encoded and decoded messages, the more effective the communication.
In what form did the message take place? That’s the medium of communication. The medium can be verbal, nonverbal, written, or electronic.
Spoken or written words, an email, a phone call, and crossed arms fall into these categories.
Anything that obstructs how well a receiver acquires a message is known as interference. It can be that music is playing too loudly for someone to hear it.
When the receiver responds to a message, they are offering feedback to the sender. Constant feedback is how conversations happen — one person says something, someone answers, someone responds again, and so forth.
But feedback can also be nonverbal. One of the most tangible examples is in stand-up comedy. A comic makes a joke, and the audience either laughs or doesn’t.
When the audience laughs, it’s a great feeling for the comic as they know to use that joke the next time they’re on stage. When the audience doesn’t laugh, the comic uses the audience’s silence to adjust either the delivery of the joke or change their material altogether.
You get feedback in everyday conversation. If you’re talking to someone and they’re closed off in their body language, avoiding eye contact, or giving you terse responses, they probably don’t want to talk to you. You should use that feedback to stop the conversation instead of belaboring someone who doesn’t want to hold a conversation.
Feedback is how we adjust and fine-tune our conversation. It’s how we escalate the jokes of a conversation until we’re cackling with our friends or find conversations fizzling out until they’re awkward.
Feedback is crucial for effective communication, and the better you fine-tune receiving interpersonal feedback, the better your communication will be.
Types of Interpersonal Communication
We’ve talked about some of the types of communication below, but bear with us — a broader explanation is needed to know how best to grow your interpersonal communication skills.
Verbal communication is how you speak to another person. In the “old days,” it meant face-to-face conversations in which both parties were physically present with each other, but it can also mean verbal conversations over the phone or software such as Skype or FaceTime.
Verbal communication is also the substance of speeches and public speaking. You’re always talking to people, whether it’s ordering a coffee, telling an Uber driver where to go, and asking your boss for a raise. How you speak — and what you say — is crucial to getting what you want.
What what you say is important, how you say it, and with what support you use to say it, also matters.
Nonverbal communication is how we know someone is confident or not confident before someone even opens their mouth. It’s how you can assess whether someone might cause you harm or whether the person you’re on a date with wants to kiss you.
Nonverbal communication can amplify or deflate the verbal communication you’re transmitting to someone.
Nonverbal communication is also the hardest to tell that you’re doing. In a way, nonverbal communication tells someone how you feel, which is why it’s the hardest to fake.
With all the emails we send out, it’s crucial to have excellent writing skills so that we send out the most effective messages for the first time.
Effective writing relies on the lessons you were given in elementary school in language arts. It’s learning how to correctly spell, use grammar, construct a sentence, and using a confident voice to avoid wordiness.
In general, the fewer words you use to get your point across, the easier it is to understand. Don’t let your meaning get lost under a blizzard of unnecessary words.
Active listening is a type of nonverbal communication but transgresses into a special category of communication. This form of communication happens when you’re physically present with someone.
Active listening tells the person you’re talking to that you care about what they say. It communicates attentiveness and interest. As a result, you signal to the person that you’re engaged and worth talking to.
Here are the main components of active listening.
Perhaps a bit redundant, but you can imagine how listening is different from hearing. Your ears pick up all the noises around you.
If you’re at a restaurant, for example, it would pick up the chatter of the table next to you, the scrapes and clinks from the kitchen, the footsteps of waiters walking around the restaurant, and so forth. You don’t pay attention to these noises for the most part, and so you don’t register them in your brain.
If someone’s talking to you, but you’re not paying attention, that person’s speech is effectively relegated to background noise as well. If you scroll through your phone, look elsewhere when you talk to someone, or in other ways have your attention elsewhere, you hear that person, but you don’t listen to them.
Therefore, to actively listen to someone, you have to be present and follow along in a conversation. You should also be making eye-contact and responding to someone’s story when appropriate.
Such responses could be nods, saying “oh gosh” at a particularly exciting part, laughing when something is comical, you get the point. It’s being engaged and providing feedback to the speaker to signal that you care about what they’re saying and are following along.
One of the best ways to show someone you’re paying attention to them is by asking questions. If you’re actively listening to someone, you’re thinking about what that person is saying.
Inevitably, someone will say something interesting that will spur you to want to dive deeper into the topic. Perhaps clarify something that didn’t make sense, or ask someone how they felt about something that happened to them. Whatever the conversation calls for, there’s a proper question to keep things moving.
However, proper interpersonal communication would mean that the person actively listening and asking communication gets a chance to talk as well. Active listening doesn’t mean interviewing someone with a bunch of questions, while the other person essentially monologues.
But active listening is what distinguishes small talk from fruitful conversations. If you’re on a date with someone and you’re not actively listening, you’re not only going to show rudeness to your date but find yourself in the pits of many awkward silence.
Other Elements of Active Listening
- Avoid distraction. Give your full attention to the person who’s talking to you.
- When appropriate, you can smile at what someone says. People tend to sprinkle their conversations with humorous remarks. Even if they don’t require a laugh, a smile is enough to encourage the other person and keep the conversation afloat.
- Remembering details. If you can’t recall what someone was talking about five minutes before, it indicates that you weren’t listening. It’s especially apparent if you ask a question to answer something someone has already said, like their hometown or what their job is.
- Body language. Slouching, crossing your arms and legs, and angling your body away from the person you’re talking to says a lot — even if you haven’t verbally said anything at all. When you’re in a conversation with someone, notice briefly what your body is doing and how you can alter its language to facilitate the conversation.
Something people often forget about is that you can communicate your maturity levels based on how you behave. Communicating maturity in an office setting distinguishes you as a leader-type and sets you up for promotion or praise, while communicating immaturity sets you back and, potentially, causes conflicts in the group.
Maturity means different things for different people, but here are a few of the overall traits mature people tend to have.
Emotional intelligence is how well someone both understands and regulates their emotions. This means when you receive criticism, you accept it graciously without getting defensive or insulted by it.
Emotional intelligence also means that when you feel a strong emotion, such as anger, sadness, or fear, you can still act with a level head and not let emotions dictate your behavior.
Emotionally intelligent people have the empathy to understand how their emotional states or emotionally charged behaviors affect other people. They’re able to act consciously without emotions overwhelming them, and they’re also able to display feelings that are perhaps painful to show, such as embarrassment, humility, or vulnerability.
At the core of emotional intelligence — and maturity as a whole — is self-control. Discipline.
When you’re angry, it’s easy to verbally lash out at people around you, even if those people weren’t the ones to cause your anger. When you’re having a bad day, it’s easy to push off your responsibilities as an excuse to wallow in your frustration or sadness.
But self-control also expands in other areas of your life as well. It’s shutting off the Netflix show you’re obsessed with so that you can get to your appointment on time.
Discipline is not falling into temptations because you want them, such as eating a lousy diet, doing drugs, or drinking excessively. It’s doing what you need to do because it benefits your life the most, such as exercising, eating healthy, and managing your time well.
When we lack self-control, we find ourselves in the whims of hedonistic pleasure — tasty yet unhealthy food, lack of exercise, and spending time on fun yet fruitless activities like social media, movies or television shows, and internet videos.
Those with self-control can give themselves these pleasures in moderation. Disciplined people tend to derive their satisfaction from harder to achieve pleasures such as those found from achieving goals. Because goals are hard to accomplish (who wouldn’t instead be watching Netflix?), they’re more rewarding.
When you show people you know how to control your desires and push past mental resistance to achieve the goals you want, you display discipline and maturity.
To an immature person, the world is the fault for everything wrong in their life.
Traffic was so heavy today, that’s why they were late to work. Their partner didn’t deliver on their part of the project, so that’s why the project isn’t up to snuff. They haven’t been sleeping well because they just have to watch that new TV show as quickly as they can. Their alarm didn’t go off in the morning, and that’s why they’re late.
Those were just a few examples, but you can likely notice more now that you know to look for them. Immature people rarely take responsibility for their actions, and it’s easier to place the blame on something else.
They’re not at fault for their shortcomings — it’s another thing that forced them to be this way. Playing the victim is often easier than changing your habits.
That’s why we tend to respect people who ditch the “Traffic was heavy excuse” and say, “It’s my fault I was late, I didn’t leave early enough. I’m sorry I was late today, and I’ll be better about it in the future.”
Admitting fault is embarrassing and hurts our pride. That’s exactly why it shows maturity.
Humility is at the core of accountability, but accountability isn’t the only way to show humility.
We show humility when we recognize that we are not the center of the universe. It’s at the core of making selfless decisions, making the right decisions that paint us in a negative light, and doing things for the greater good — even if we don’t benefit as well as we could.
When you show gratefulness for the luck you’ve had in life, the opportunities afforded to you, and the hard work you put in to achieve your goals, you show humility. When you act as if you were entitled to everything you got with little effort on your end, you show arrogance instead, which is immature.
Mature people are able to commit. Whether it’s relationships, business transactions, or just creating plans with a friend, commitment shows you value the promises you’ve made to people and respect the expectations of others.
Commitment also shows you’re able to foresee into the future and understand yourself well enough to know whether you’d still support the item you’re committing, such as a tattoo or plans you made with someone.
If you can manage your own needs and responsibilities without relying on other people, you show maturity. We acknowledge that people with disabilities may need support from other folks. In general, though, if you can do it yourself but opt to have someone do it for you instead, you’re not very independent.
Why Do You Need Interpersonal Communication Skills?
Besides helping to close the number one skills gap among employees, according to LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner, here are other reasons to bolster your interpersonal communication skills.
Efficient communication the first time helps you get your message across faster and with fewer words. Not only will you save yourself time by communicating more efficiently, but you also dispel the possibility of miscommunications that you’ll have to fix later.
Miscommunications can occur when the sender gives a message that’s vague or confusing. The receiver will probably ask questions that halt productivity when the sender should have sent a clearer message to begin with.
Which would you rather receive as an email: one with sprawling sentences that don’t get to the point or a short one that’s filled with all the information you need? The latter, of course. So save yourself and everyone else time by learning how to improve your interpersonal skills.
When you communicate more effectively, you not only reduce the likelihood of errors due to miscommunication but achieve your end product the way you wanted.
When you can clearly tell your team what you want, when you want milestones achieved, and why they should be doing it how you like it, you get everyone on the same page with the project. When one person operates under different pretenses then their employees, they’re diverting the workflow and overall halting the team’s productivity.
Aside from the workplace, you can improve the results of other aspects of your life as well when you clearly communicate what you want. Your boss isn’t likely to just give you a raise — you have to ask for it. The person you’ve been going on dates with won’t know you want to define the relationship unless you say so.
You’ll be amazed at what happens when you simply ask for something. Most of the time, you get it, as mentioned in this TEDxTalk. Even if you don’t, you build self-confidence because you’ve asserted your desires instead of waiting for them to come to you passively.
Improve Your Relationships
Whether it’s a romantic, platonic, or professional relationship, everything benefits from improved interpersonal communication.
Romantic relationships, in particular, tend to last longer when both parties can communicate their needs and desires to their partners. Failure to communicate properly is a significant reason why relationships fail.
An effective partnership involves people telling each other when they need something — more space, more intimacy, more honesty, etc. Both partners should be able to describe when they’re upset with the other and offer up ways they think their partner can improve.
A relationship becomes shaky when one partner communicates their needs, but the other one either listens or both partners listen, but one won’t offer up what’s wrong unless pushed. It can become exhausting for one partner to ask the other what’s upsetting them constantly. It’s one thing to take a while to cool down before talking, another to completely bottle up your feelings.
Strong interpersonal skills also involve being able to communicate more difficult emotions to express, such as items that shame us, confidential sexual needs we desire, or the ability to open up about past experiences that we desperately need to talk about with select few people.
In short, a good relationship needs vulnerability, which involves not only identifying the deeply personal things to talk about but being able to formulate them into speech for the benefit of the relationship.
If a relationship can’t push past the superficiality, or if both partners lose the ability to talk about what upsets them, then small resentments will build until the relationship weakens and eventually fails.
How to Improve Interpersonal Communication Skills
Listen When People Talk
If you’ve developed poor listening skills — letting your mind wander, avoiding eye contact, allowing distractions into the conversation — then you have to work to get rid of them.
Listening can be one of the hardest things we do since work, social media, and notifications on our phones can continuously distract us. But learning to listen to people when they speak forces us to pay attention to those around us.
Be Open and Honest
No more hiding how you feel through sarcasm, humor, or passive aggression. When you see a problem, don’t hope that it will go away and fix itself — tell whoever necessary that you have a problem. Whether it’s your partner burping too loudly in a restaurant or a coworker’s poor time management skills that affect your work, problems fix themselves when they’re discussed.
Conversely, when the people around you bring up issues with you, don’t avoid conflict. Don’t blame others or offer up white lies to save face. Be humble and honest, and you’ll be surprised at how many problems in your life clear up.
Get Better at Controlling Emotions
Sometimes workplace annoyances or relationship fights can push you to the edge. By keeping a clear head, you can avoid the drama from expressing rage and instead offer up rational solutions that solve problems rather than delay fixing them.
Notice Nonverbal Cues
Sometimes we can be so focused on conversation that we miss what else people have to say. When you pay attention to other people’s body language as well as your own, you resolve miscommunications arising because of mixed signals.
Interpersonal communication skills are crucial as a human living with, working with, and cohabitating with other humans. You’ll see your life drastically improve when you master the art of proper communication, and we hope we’ve helped you with that journey.