Education competencies: Interpersonal skills

This competency is one in a set of complete functional and behavioral qualities that, when fully realized, can help lead to professional success. View all competencies .


Is warm and easy to approach; builds constructive and effective relationships; uses diplomacy and tact to diffuse tense situations; has a style and charm that immediately puts others at ease and disarms hostility.

Proficiency level

Level 1: Basic Level 2: Intermediate Level 3: Advanced Level 4: Expert
Is pleasant and friendly and builds rapport with people Is warm, pleasant, and gracious; easy to approach and engage in conversation Builds constructive and effective relationships inside and outside the organization Easily builds lasting, constructive, and mutually beneficial relationships with other individuals and groups
Builds constructive relationships with people in his or her area Builds strong relationships with others inside and outside his or her area or organization Makes an extra effort to put others at ease with a warm, friendly, and accepting demeanor Has a style and charm that immediately puts others at ease and disarms hostility
Tolerates others' idiosyncrasies Uses diplomacy and tact to diffuse tense situations comfortably Diffuses even high-tension situations; respected as a diplomat, treating others with respect, patience, and consideration Values diversity, generating an air of acceptance and goodwill toward everyone

Intuitively gifted in diffusing volatile interpersonal situations and disarming troublemakers

Overdoing interpersonal skills

  • May waste too much time building rapport in meetings, building networks, and glad-handing
  • May be misinterpreted as easy-going or easy to influence; not taken as substantive by some
  • May have too strong a desire to be liked, avoiding or freezing in the face of necessary negative or unpleasant transactions
  • May be able to get by with smooth interpersonal skills
  • May not be a credible take-charge leader when necessary

Essential questions

To improve your proficiency, ask yourself the following questions on a regular basis:

  • Have I initiated conversations with others today about things unrelated to work?
  • When was the last time I cordially introduced myself to a stranger?
  • Have I made one new friend this week?
  • When engaged in a conversation, do I actively listen to what others are saying?
  • What good traits can I find in someone I don't like?
  • Did I keep my cool the last time I was verbally attacked or criticized?

To avoid overdoing interpersonal skills, ask yourself:

  • Am I spending too much time trying to make new friends and influence others?
  • Am I superficial, seeking more to be liked than to be known?
  • Am I unwilling to do something I think may make me unpopular?

Interview questions

  • Tell me about a time when it was particularly important to quickly build rapport with an individual or group. Who was the person(s) and why was it so important? Specifically, what methods did you use to build rapport? How did you know that you were successful?
  • Describe a period of time when you made an extra effort to build strong relationships with others inside or outside the organization. To what extent were any of the people challenging to relate to? What methods did you use, and what were the results?
  • Think of a time when you were part of a tense situation that needed to be diffused. What made it tense? What role did you play in diffusing it? What were the results?

Learning on the job

Learning on your own: These self-development remedies will help you build your skill(s).
  • Meet each person where he or she is to get things accomplished: Accept others, along with their style and normal way of doing things. Recognize that each person is unique and functions in distinct ways. Use your knowledge of what makes them tick to interact with them in the most effective way.
  • Select your interpersonal approach from the other person in, rather than from you out: Read your audience, and observe their reactions to you and to others. Craft your approach of interaction as if dealing with a valued customer.
  • Work on being open and approachable: First impressions are formed within the first three minutes of contact. Quickly gather information about people with whom you interact at the beginning of the interface, and tailor your actions toward putting others at ease. Initiate rapport, listen, and share.
  • Listen: Listen to others, take in information, and select an appropriate response. Ask clarifying questions without interrupting and without judging them.
  • Share information: Share information, confide your thinking, and invite a response. Communicate to others that they have value. Know three things about everyone you work with, and talk about things beyond the work agenda.
  • Manage your non-verbals: Understand the critical role of non-verbal communication. Strive to appear relaxed, open, and calm. Speak in a pleasant tone, nod when listening, and avoid looking at your watch or shuffling paperwork.
  • Use your best interpersonal skills with everyone, and personalize: Strive to be at your best whether you are comfortable or uncomfortable around a group of people. Remember important things about the people around you (their interests, their families). Establish things you can talk about beyond work issues with each person with whom you work.
  • You start: Initiate contact with others; make eye contact, and extend your hand first. Ask the first question, talk to strangers, and set a goal of meeting new people at every social event. Ask questions about their opinions and preferences, and then step back and observe them.
  • Be approachable to everyone: Put your judgment on hold and give people a chance, or even a second chance. Demonstrate acceptance and interest when interacting with everyone. Look for their good points.
  • Exercise your interpersonal skills under duress: If you are being verbally attacked or criticized, keep calm and stay cool. Try to absorb the energy of your opponent to manage him or her. Ask clarifying questions without hitting back. Allow the other person to talk until he or she runs out of venom. Rephrase an attack on you as an attack on a problem.
Learning from develop-in-place assignments: These part-time develop-in-place assignments will help you build your skill(s).
  • Integrate diverse systems, processes, or procedures across decentralized units.
  • Study humor and funny people around you. Keep a cache of cartoons, jokes, and humorous anecdotes.
  • Be a change agent; champion a significant change, and work toward implementation.
  • Resolve an issue or conflict between two people or groups.
  • Make peace with an enemy or someone you've disappointed, had trouble with, or don't get along with.
Learning more from your plan: These additional remedies will help make this development plan more effective for you.
  • Look beyond your first solution to a problem. The second or third may be more effective.
  • Use objective data when judging others. Practice studying other people rather than judging or evaluating them. Try to predict how they would act or react in various situations, and see how accurate you are.
  • Examine why you judge people the way you do. List the people you like and dislike and why. Discern what you have in common with them.
  • Analyze how you perform under several roles. Analyze how you are as a contributor, professional, parent, spouse, and friend. Create a list of criteria for each role, evaluate yourself against the criteria, and pick a few things to work on to improve in each role.
  • Study yourself in detail. Study your likes and dislikes, and determine which may have gotten in the way of moving you to a higher level of learning.
  • Learning from experience, feedback and other people:
    • Use multiple models. Select role models of towering strengths (or glaring weaknesses). Learn from characteristics rather than from the whole person.
    • Learn from mentors and tutors. Be open and non-defensive; solicit and accept feedback.
    • Learn from ineffective behavior. Distance yourself from your feelings, and explore why the ineffective behavior didn't work.
    • Learn by observing others. Objectively study what they do.
    • Learn from poor authority figures. Determine what makes them bad examples, if you are part of the problem, and if others regard them the same way. Avoid reacting out of anger and frustration, and resolve to not imitate poor behavior.
  • Learning from courses:
    • Participate in insight events. Take a course designed to assess skills and provide feedback to help you develop self-knowledge.

Recommended readings

  • Adler, Ronald B., and Jeanne Marquardt Elmhorst.Communicating at Work: Principles and Practices for Business and the Professions.New York: McGraw-Hill Text, 2002.
  • Baker, Wayne E.Networking Smart.New York:, 2000.
  • Foster, D. Glenn, and Mary Marshall.How Can I Get Through to You? Breakthrough Communication Beyond Gender, Beyond Therapy, Beyond Deception.New York: Hyperion, 1994.
  • Foster, D. Glenn, and Mary Marshall.How Can I Get Through to You? Breakthrough Communication Beyond Gender, Beyond Therapy, Beyond Deception[sound recording]. New York: Harper Audio, 1994.
  • Goleman, Daniel, Annie McKee, and Richard E. Boyatzis.Primal Leadership: Realizing the Power of Emotional Intelligence.Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 2002.
  • Gudykunst, William B., and Young Yun Kim.Communicating With Strangers: An Approach to Intercultural Communication.New York: WCB/McGraw-Hill, 2002.
  • Gundry, Lisa, and Laurie LaMantia.Breakthrough Teams for Breakneck Times: Unlocking the Genius of Creative Collaboration.Chicago, IL: Dearborn Trade Publishing, 2001.
  • Hargrove, Robert.Mastering the Art of Creative Collaboration.New York: McGraw-Hill, Inc., 1999.
  • Mai, Robert, and Alan Akerson.The Leader As Communicator: Strategies and Tactics to Build Loyalty, Focus Effort, and Spark Creativity.New York: AMACOM, 2003.
  • Maxwell, John C.Relationships 101.London: Thomas Nelson, 2004.
  • Silberman, Melvin L., and Freda Hansburg.Peoplesmart: Developing Your Interpersonal Intelligence.San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc., 2000.
  • Simmons, Annette.The Story Factor.Cambridge, MA: Perseus Publishing, 2001.
  • Vengel, Alan A.The Influence Edge: How to Persuade Others to Help You Achieve Your Goals.San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc., 2000.

Next steps

Copyright © 1992, 1996, 2001-2003 by Robert W. Eichinger and Michael M. Lombardo. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. This work is derived from the LEADERSHIP ARCHITECT® Competency Library developed and copyrighted by Robert W. Eichinger and Michael M. Lombardo for Lominger Limited, Inc.

This competency is one in a set of complete functional and behavioral qualities that, when fully realized, can help lead to professional success.

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