Why People Skills Are So Important

by Anne Glusker

View original publication on Forbes.com

We hear a lot these days about soft skills, people skills, emotional intelligence. But what are these things exactly, and how do we know if we have them? And, yikes, if we don’t, where do we go to get them?

People skills are very much in demand, as a new report from ManpowerGroup attests. Their May survey of 2,000 U.S. employers found that 61% of American companies rated such “soft” abilities as communication, collaboration and problem-solving as the most desired skills in prospective hires. Becky Frankiewicz, president of ManpowerGroup North America, attributes the increased demand to a confluence of events, which together require collaboration and coordination on unprecedented levels: “The rise of globalization and at the same time the demand for localization, plus the rise of consumer demand­—all are underpinned by digitization and the need to keep costs in check while delivering on that demand.” She ticks off a variety of corporate departments: “Finance. IT. Marketing. Sales. Everyone has to work across silos.”

So no matter where you happen to work in a company, you need these EQ skills. But they aren’t just something you can grab off a shelf at Costco or Target. If you have them, lucky you. But if, like most of us, you need help identifying what they are and figuring out how to acquire or improve them, read on.

What Are People Skills, Anyway?

The soft skills that are most sought-after in the business world are self-awareness, the ability to listen, empathy, communication (both written and oral), trust and emotional regulation. Many of these skills are interrelated. For instance, you have to be able to truly listen to another person in order to empathize with him or her. And if you can communicate well, you will better be able to build trust.

Self-awareness. This may be the most critical skill, since if you aren’t aware of your own weaknesses and deficits, you can’t even begin to try to improve.
Listening. This is a rare ability, according to venture capitalist Semyon Dukach, enabling you “to be effective, to form bonds with other humans.” Adds career coach Roy Cohen: “People don’t want to be talked at, they want to know that they’ve been heard.” Some of us are so enamored of our own ideas that it’s hard for us to stop and truly hear what the other person is saying.
Empathy. Awareness of other people is key­—knowing how they are different from you and how they may see an event, says psychoanalyst and Forbes contributor Prudy Gourguechon. “You have to know what the other person’s experience is,” she notes.
Communication. The ability to both speak and write clearly­—so you are understood, so you get your point across­—is a critical skill, both in business and in life. Talk of messaging and storytelling is everywhere these days, and to be sure, both are vitally important, but if you can really capture someone’s imagination, you have taken communication to the next level.
Trust. A fundamental feeling of trust between two people is often based on respect. It is what allows a relationship to supersede any awkwardnesses or disagreements, says Gourguechon. “Trust allows you to function. There’s decreased anxiety.”
Emotional regulation. Another name for this is self-control. Some people are just innately even-keeled, but many of us are not. What gets you riled up? What throws you? Learning how to identify what causes you to come undone and how to regulate your own emotions are key skills.

“The likely gaps in somebody’s people skills will vary based on their personality,” says career coach Sarah Stamboulie. “Introverts need to learn to be aware of the other person, to not be self-involved. But if you’re an extrovert, you may be prone to stealing the spotlight, talking too much about yourself.” So what you should work is entirely dependent on precisely who you are—thus, the first step is self-awareness.

And Why Are They So Important?

Strong people skills are a must for a variety of reasons and in a variety of contexts. If you’re in sales, you have to put yourself in your customer’s position, to understand what he or she needs (to empathize) in order to complete the sale. If you’re trying to negotiate a deal, you must be patient and calm (emotionally regulated) so that you can close the deal. If you’re trying to raise your first funding round, you have to articulate your mission and its potential (communication) in order to get the capital you need. And if you’re trying to make a crucial hire, you absolutely have to hear the person you want (listening) so that your offer will be accepted.

“Strong people skills allow those who are simply smart to distinguish themselves from those who will actually lead,” according to the career coach Roy Cohen, who specializes in working with Wall Streeters. “These skills allow you to minimize conflict, to get people to want to spend time with you, to believe in your mission.”

Since soft skills are not usually taught in business schools or undergraduate programs, they are qualities that you have to burnish on your own, preferably in the early stages of your career. “Management skills are at their heart people skills,” says Maia Josebachvili, vice president of marketing and strategy at Greenhouse, a talent-acquisition software company. “Often people go to business school because they want to be leaders, but a lot of the skills that it takes to be a good manager are not taught.”

I Get It. So Now What Do I Do?

You can seek help from a career coach or a therapist. You can turn to a mentor, acquaintance or friend, although it can be difficult for people who know you well to relay unpleasant information. You can read—fortunately, there is a great deal of excellent material out there on this topic. Josebachvili says that she has greatly improved her people skills over the last 10 years by reading a massive amount on the topic, and she especially recommends Radical Candor by Kim Scott.

A wonderful tip comes from Terri Wein of the career and executive coaching firm Weil & Wein, who suggests picking someone—a celebrity, a colleague you’ve seen give a speech—and watching five minutes of that person’s TED Talk or YouTube clip. “Don’t pay attention to the actual content of what the person is saying. Instead focus on the person’s body language, facial expressions, tone of voice,” advises Wein. “What is the person doing with their hands?” Another option would be to pick a friend whose people skills you admire and go with her or him to a networking event or to a bar. Observe closely. “Not everything they do will feel natural for you. Pick and choose what feels real to you.”

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