10 ways to improve your people skills and raise your emotional intelligence

Business is a team sport — but a rough one like rugby.  Companies and people can get hurt badly because more than ever before it’s a winner-take-all contest. It’s a game played under pressure – losing is not fun and winning solves everything. So, it’s no wonder bosses are looking for real team players.

We look for people who remain calm and effective under pressure, who empathize with clients and team members in pursuit of the best possible results. The gifted individuals we’re looking for act with grace in stressful situations, listen well, communicate well, admit mistakes and learn from them, respond well to criticism and show high self and situational awareness. With these skills, you can be counted on to build productive relationships founded on trust and respect.

These are essentially ‘people skills’, though employers also call them ’emotional intelligence’. When you lack these skills, you have a “personality issue”. But as any parent can tell you, we aren’t born with people skills.

I think I have good people skillsGood people skills are unnatural. If Johnny the two-year-old wants to play with his brother’s toy, he just grabs it away. His four-year-old brother pushes Johnny down on the ground and takes it back. It’s no wonder that personality issues are the number one reason why VP’s don’t become CEOs and why otherwise good employees lose their jobs in a recession.

Little kids don’t like to share and they don’t like to consider anyone’s feelings but their own. Unsurprisingly, many adults still feel that way. Here’s a typical comment from someone advised to network and brush up on his so-called “soft skills”:

“I am a worker and a human being, not a circus act. If you want someone who will get the job done correctly and on time, every time, then I’m your man. If you want someone to read your mind, entertain you, or cater to your every whim, then you need a palm reader, a clown, or a dog. I’m none of those. Sorry.”

Ok, understood. But get used to sitting on the sidelines in bad times and watching your colleagues be promoted above you during good times. Your attitude makes you like a very specific tool, say a snowblower. I only need you when the snow is too heavy for a snow shovel. The rest of the time you sit in the garage rusting away.

Back to Johnny and his “personality issues”. If he’s lucky enough to receive good parenting, has good genes and enjoys the right social and educational opportunities, the little wild animal will be tamed and his resulting “emotional intelligence” will make him a productive member of society and valuable team member.

If his people skills are really top-notch, he will be perpetually in-demand and never need to prepare a formal resume. Until of course the day comes when he rises to the level in an organization where his strengths and weaknesses are at an equilibrium in relationship to his responsibilities… that’s called the Peter principle, and we’ll save that for another lesson.

If the stars did not align for you the way they did for Johnny, you will have a few more rough edges to polish. The good news is that the hiring managers searching for ’emotional intelligence’ are wrong – it’s not an intelligence, they are just skills that you can learn and practice.

If you don’t want your boss to see a snowblower when he looks at you, if you want him to see someone really special in front of him, follow these steps in order:

  1. Connect with people – read How to Win Friends & Influence People by Dale Carnegie.
  2. Learn good listening skills – read Peaceful Parents, Peaceful Kids; Practical Ways to Create a Calm and Happy Home by Naomi Drew (chapter 6).
  3. Close your e-mails wellhand write them and do it warmly when appropriate.
  4. Learn pacing in conversation – this is a sales and NLP technique for developing rapport.
  5. Study and use body language – body language is almost always more truthful than speech.
  6. Learn to recognize and manage stress – learning your own stress signals and techniques will help you help others.  Read Stop Worrying & Start Living by Dale Carnegie.
  7. Manage your energy – read The Power of Full Engagement; Managing Energy, Not Time, Is the Key to High Performance and Personal Renewal by Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz.
  8. Study animal training and use it on people – read Don’t Shoot the Dog; The New Art of Teaching and Training
    by Karen Pryor.
  9. Use humornothing works quite as well. Read Lincoln on Leadership: Executive Strategies for Tough Times
    by Donald Phillips.
  10. Be kind to yourself – it’s hard to empathize and connect with others if you can’t do those things with yourself. First, treat yourself kindly.

When you’ve learned these skills, you’ll be of much greater value to your boss and you’ll enjoy your work and your relationships with coworkers more. Last but not least, your family and personal relationships will benefit immeasurably.

Get the ebook! If you liked what you read here, and think you may want to refer back to this guide later, grab the Kindle version – we’re hoping you’ll thank us with a five-star review on Amazon if you found this material helpful. The ebook also includes our job search guide.

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  • Dinasha

    This article was very helpful and reminded me of the time I worked for
    the YMCA as a receptionist. I had to sit at the front desk and deal with
    customers over the phone answering there questions and giving them
    information about the YMCA. I was very nervous about talking to people
    over the phone especially when i did not know the answer to their
    questions, but i remained clam and assured them that I would find
    someone to answer their questions, which they appreciated.

  • Eileen Shoemaker

    When I discovered this article, it seemed to summarize my own journey since beginning college. As a naturally quiet person, I decided to learn to be more outgoing. At first my aim was to meet new friends, but I think that the skills I learned correspond to my future job as an Occupational Therapist as well, since its focus is on people. I came up with goals for myself similar to the ones listed in this article.

    First, I learned (from Dale Carnegie’s book) that people like talking about themselves. At the beginning of the day, I would think of questions to ask and conversation topics, even as simple as upcoming tests. This started many amusing and engaging chats with others, as well as new friendships.

    Next, I wanted to learn how to stay connected with people better. I made a point to remember those conversations; then, if a person told me about plans they had for the weekend, I could ask them about it later. This allowed me to express that a person is important and valuable to me. Further, I began applying active listening skills, such as restating what the person was telling me and nodding to show I was interested. Eventually I went to the internet to look for more ways to improve people skills. I read articles about body language and mirroring the other person in conversation.

    I realized (surprisingly through interactions with my family!) that stress management was imperative, too. Stress from school would come out as irritability and avoiding people. I learned that, as an introvert, I need a bit of time alone to energize. I now know what I need to feel energized, such as better sleep and enough hours of it, as well as time to exercise and relax. I realized that I needed to stop having perfectionist expectations for myself, to be kind to myself, and to relish the moments of my life more. I find a way to have a good laugh every day, whether it is showing a funny video to my family or joking with friends.

  • Shaenel Gamble

    I have been working at a clinic every summer since I was 14, for five years. When I first started the job, I lacked people skills. Since then I have learned a few of the people skills mentioned in this article; such as, listening, learning from mistakes, and communicating with coworkers as well as patients.

    From this article, I’ve noticed that I still need to make improvements on my people skills. For example, I still have difficulty communicating and connecting with patients. I also realized that I need to understand body language because it will help me more effectively communicate with patients and coworkers. If I used humor more while at work, it could improve anyone’s mood. By improving one person’s mood, it can also influence other people’s day; which would mean increasing patient satisfaction.

    I agree with the article that learning people skills can help anyone enjoy their job more. Also, having these skills is vital for virtually every job you will ever have. I hope that I can learn all of these people skills so I can have better interactions with patients. I would also like to make more connections with patients to make their day at the clinic better, as well as mine.

  • Ash Snodgrass

    People skills are the most important. My late teens and early twenties were filled with social anxiety, but after taking a job where I absolutely had to deal with people and learn to communicate effectively, I found these skills help me in every corner of my life, not just my work life. Also, language learning is very important; not just body language, but foreign language (not mentioned in this but that’s okay) and makes a difference in whether or not you get a job. The majority of my jobs since 2012 have been successfully obtained because I speak Spanish and have a friendly, fun manner about me. It’s so important to make your guests feel comfortable around you and I’ve found talking to them as I would want to be spoken too helps a great deal in that respect.

  • Katie Revilla

    I find this article to be really insightful and motivational for people in the arts and humanities that may think that they will have a tougher time getting a job than those in more demanding fields of study. As an Art major, I’m asked more than those around me about what I am going to do.However, I have found that people in my field are much different than the average college graduate. In art, we are not memorizing words or dates, and we are not just looking for the right answer to get an A.

    Instead, we are asking more questions than giving answers. We are questioning assumptions and social norms in order to better our communities. Not to mention that art classes are limited to 30 students, unlike general majors that have 300-400 students in a large lecture hall. This forces us to communicate with our teachers and peers and become an active participant in the classroom.

    Looking at the qualities I have obtained through my education, I have learned that it doesn’t exactly matter what your major is, but essentially it boils down to who you are. When we graduate and go out into the job field, if you are not able to market yourself and push for the jobs you want then you are not going to be successful. One can’t just get straight A’s but be a passive learner if they want to achieve great things. Everyday I feel lucky to be in the position I am in, because I look at things in big pictures, and am constantly breaking down situations and realities that I’m confronted with on a daily basis.

    Not to generalize, but students in the humanities and arts also tend to be more sensitive and emotional thinkers. I feel that although these qualities were once looked down upon, now that we are becoming more immersed in the digital world and losing empathy we have started to recognize the importance of being sensitive. Personally, I’m highly sensitive and this allows me to look at people and understand how to approach them. I know if I am directing a group of people, talking to a loud and confident person compared to a shy and nervous person is going to vary greatly. In general, I feel that all people want is to feel acknowledged, understood, and respected. There are many ways to do this, but it’s all about understanding dynamics and how you can make that individual feel that way.

    Overall, because I am an art major and an artist, I approach things much differently compared to others. I have learned over the course of my college education at UC Berkeley that these companies in several fields are not just looking for people studying in those positions, but for someone who can work well with ambiguity, manage a lot of tasks at once, and most importantly work well with others. I feel that these qualities can come from a vast range of people and as more companies diversify they are seeking out the rare and unique aspects that make people different.

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About the author

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In 1997, Eric Shannon launched the first job board for bilinguals who speak English/Spanish at LatPro.com. Eric still serves as CEO of LatPro Inc., developer of JustJobs.com. He lives in Boulder, CO with his wife and two girls.

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