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Interpersonal Competence in the Management of People

McConnell, Charles R., MBA, BS, CM

doi: 10.1097/HCM.0000000000000237
Article

Interpersonal skills are those essential skills applied in dealing with and relating to other people largely on a one-to-one basis. The interpersonal communication behavior of many people suggests they assume an ability to communicate effectively that they do not possess, taking these skills for granted. One must work conscientiously to develop interpersonal competence by doing the rights things at all times and doing them repeatedly until they become ingrained. As with any human skills, interpersonal skills can be improved through conscious effort. Successful interpersonal communication involves shaping the behavior of others often while countering their shaping behavior. To have a chance of being successful, every interpersonal contact must have an objective, and every effort must be made to avoid creating win-lose transactions whenever possible.

Author Affiliation: Health Care Management and Human Resources Consultant, Ontario, New York.

The author has no conflicts of interest.

Correspondence: Charles R. McConnell, MBA, BS, CM, 5943 Walworth Rd, Ontario, NY 14519 (mclighthouse@juno.com).

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NOT TO BE TAKEN FOR GRANTED

Interpersonal skills are those particular communication skills that are used when we are behaving in a manner intended to achieve certain results or objectives in face-to-face encounters. Common interpersonal situations on the job include numerous contacts with direct-reporting employees such as directing, coaching, counseling, praising, disciplining or reprimanding, training, problem solving, and many others. For the department manager, common interpersonal situations also include one-to-one contacts with peers, higher management, and other employees and persons external to the organization. A truly exhaustive list of potential one-to-one situations would likely be lengthy.

Everyone possesses interpersonal “skills” as such; however, whereas a few individuals may exhibit exceptional interpersonal skills, a great many others may demonstrate weak or negative or virtually nonexistent interpersonal skills. Such considerable difficulty as we know exists with interpersonal communication seems to exist because most individuals do not believe there is anything wrong with the way they communicate face-to-face. In general, we take a certain facility with interpersonal communication for granted. As a result, most persons inherently believe they are better communicators than they actually are.

In any given face-to-face encounter, one is organizing one’s own behavior for the accomplishment of some specific objective.

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SHAPING AND ENHANCING BEHAVIOR

Our behavior consists of what we say along with the things we do that are overt and observable and thus become part of the message being communicated. Our behavior in communication encompasses the words we utilize, the manner in which we apply those words, and the nonverbal indicators that we apply both consciously and unconsciously. The latter, the nonverbal indicators, can encompass reflex muscle movements, those motor habits, gestures, and movements we make without conscious thought, along with other physical movement accompanying a verbal communication, taken altogether being the indicators that comprise what we frequently refer to as body language.

Body language is behavior that is largely conveyed unconsciously, but this may also be accompanied by deliberate actions, both verbal and nonverbal, such that the intended result is the intentional arranging of behavior so as to increase the chances achieving specific communication objectives. Simple example of such behavior shaping might include yawning or overtly examining one’s wristwatch during a lengthy explanation or presentation (nonverbal), or asking a specific leading question or deliberately open-ended question during an interview (verbal).

Our individual behavior matters considerably in face-to-face communication because it has effects on others and to a sometimes considerable extent influences what others think and do. And that individual behavior is proscribed largely by that complex sum of traits, characteristics, capabilities, beliefs, and tendencies that we refer to as personality. One might have a personality that lends itself to effective interpersonal communication with others; one might exhibit personality traits and characteristics that impede effective interpersonal communication.

It is likely that the most important factors in interpersonal communication are personal credibility and interpersonal competence. Of lesser importance, although still at times significant, are technical expertise, temperament, and attitudes toward others. Motives, feelings, and attitudes, although often influencing behavior, are ordinarily less visible than immediate behavior. Thus, interpersonal competence, supported by personal credibility, will frequently be the strongest determinant of success at interpersonal communication.

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ACQUIRING INTERPERSONAL COMPETENCE

There are 2 equally important sides to the matter of interpersonal competence. On the one hand, it is necessary to become skilled in the behavior necessary for effective face-to-face interactions. On the other hand, it is essential to learn how to interpret the behavior of others so that our own behavior can be adjusted accordingly. To acquire or enhance interpersonal competence, we must continually observe others and interpret their actions and arrange our behavior to suit the objectives of any particular interaction.

What is initially required for the acquisition of interpersonal competence is repetition. Repetition, that is, of the proper sort, is deliberate repetition through contact after contact after contact in which one relates to others with thoughtfulness and respect. Said repetition is necessary for 2 reasons: first, it is no secret to anyone that any skill is improved through practice, and second, repetition also serves to temper and eventually overcome the fears and apprehensions that so many people experience concerning face-to-face contacts with others. Take the first reason as a given, or at least a statement backed by the common-sense knowledge that most activities improve with practice, and look more closely at the second reason.

Consider, for instance, some of the contacts a department manager experiences in the normal course of duty. When one was brand new to supervision, there was probably some reluctance felt, some minor measure of discomfort experienced, when it was necessary to announce an unpopular decision or perhaps even just provide an employee with direction contrary to what might have been expected. And surely there was apprehension to be experienced the first time or two that the new supervisor realized that an employee had to be reprimanded or disciplined. However, anyone who has managed others for an appreciable time knows that these particular tasks become easier with repetition. One might always approach disciplinary action with a certain amount of trepidation—actually, some apprehension concerning disciplinary action is a healthy, if not essential, adjunct to the process—but it cannot be denied that one becomes better at these tasks through conscientious practice.

As managers have been discovering since time immemorial, it is easier to pass along good news than it is to disseminate bad news, and it is surely easier to dispense praise than it is to reprimand or dispense criticism. The way one gets better at handling the interpersonal contacts that inspire hesitation and apprehension is to just do it. And do it, and do it, until a workable level of competence is attained and one is able to address necessary negatives kindly but respectfully, thoroughly, and constructively. The manager who, through fear and apprehension, shies away from disciplining or disciplines too late or in watered-down fashion is severely limiting his or her growth in management. Facing the apprehension again and again, however, will enhance personal growth and contribute to interpersonal competence. Repetition is as essential as saying and doing the correct things.

Consider, for a moment, the matter of conducting a performance appraisal interview. Perhaps one has had occasion to wonder why performance appraisals seem to be far from the average manager’s favorite task. A manager’s dislike of—and apprehension concerning—performance appraisals is probably owing to 2 areas of cause. First, there is the knowledge that this process is important to the employee, perhaps affecting pay increases and promotional opportunities, maybe even continued employment itself, all of which, in addition to the possibility of having to criticize, conspires to raise a manager’s level of apprehension. Second, the manager may have limited opportunity to acquire competence through repetition. Each employee is a unique individual, and each must be dealt with in a manner that is in some ways different from how the manager deals with all others. But within most appraisal systems, the formal appraisal occurs, but once per year, hardly a frequency that permits building interpersonal competence with each individual employee. So the performance appraisal is likely to remain a source of dislike for some managers, especially for those who have little or no other performance-related contact with employee throughout the year (surely a serious error of omission for some managers, but unfortunately a practice encountered all too often in the workforce).

One also becomes skilled in face-to-face interactions by observing others and interpreting their actions and arranging one’s own behavior to suit the objective of any particular interaction. In interpreting the behavior of others, however, it is necessary to be mindful that we are usually speculating because we see only the outer indications of behavior, and we have to infer feelings and motives from this behavior. Our interpretation of others’ behavior is conditioned by our past experiences with others, and it is necessary to accept the likelihood of often being wrong in assessing another’s behavior. This suggests why it is extremely important for a manager to truly know each employee in the group as an individual; the better the manager is acquainted with a person’s moods and tendencies and personality characteristics, the better the manager will be at interpreting the person’s behavior.

Interpersonal competence then comes with time and practice. It comes to those who can accept the truth of the statement noted earlier: “most persons inherently believe they are better communicators than they actually are.” Those who can believe that they are not nearly as good at communication as they could be are those best situated to seek the improvement necessary to gain interpersonal competence.

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IMPROVING INTERPERSONAL SKILLS

A great deal can be offered concerning various means of improving one’s interpersonal skills. However, there is a single factor that is probably central to ensuring the success of any face-to-face interaction, and that is the presence of a clearly understood objective.

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Why objectives?

Setting an objective for any particular interaction may not change the interaction at all. Surely we can—and frequently do—have interactions without objectives. But having a specific objective requires that something arise from the interaction to serve that objective. Objectives require that something be done to achieve them. More often than not interactions without objectives are unproductive. Interactions without objectives leave one with feelings like: “Three hours in a meeting and I can’t see what we accomplished” or “Pleasant conversation, but was anything really decided?”

Going into an interpersonal exchange knowing in advance what one wishes to get from it will set the exchange on a potentially productive track. The objective may be modified or completely changed along the way as information is exchanged, but even a changing objective is more likely than no objective at all to keep an interchange on track. Managers consume a great deal of time meeting with others both one-on-one and in groups. The manager who enters every communication situation with a specific objective in mind will, in the long run, be more productive while spending less time communicating.

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What is an objective, anyway?

An objective is a specific prediction of circumstances that you wish to attain at some specific time in the future. Simply described, an objective is a target. As far as a particular interpersonal contact is concerned, the objective is the state of things that you intend to exist at the conclusion of the interchange, or perhaps a statement describing the outcome you desire for a situation. In on-the-job situations, objectives frequently refer to reaching agreement on something, determining a plan of action, making or affirming a decision, or resolving a particular issue. For example, one might wish to convince an employee of a necessary policy change (reaching agreement on something), spell out how to go about protesting an apparently faulty policy (determining a plan of action), establishing mutual agreement on how to proceed (making or affirming a decision), or solving a scheduling problem (resolving a particular issue).

Even the simplest of objectives must possess 2 essential elements: a description of the outcome one wishes to achieve (always both desirable and realistic) and some means by which success is to be measured. Going into any interaction it is necessary to know what you wish to accomplish and how you will know it has been accomplished. An objective may be altered as it is pursued; this is often the case because the interaction can produce information that can suggest a change in direction or emphasis. But to proceed with no specific objective in mind is to run the considerable risk of accomplishing nothing; if you know not where you are going, you will never know when you arrive there. Even pursuing an objective that you feel is shaky and will undoubtedly change to some extent before you get there is better than having no objective at all—at least you know you are pointed in the right general direction.

Setting an objective in any interaction clarifies what you have to do; you can compare the outcome with the prediction and gauge the extent of success or failure. And fully as important as knowing where you are going, having a specific objective helps you in communicating to others what you want to accomplish.

Some guidelines to keep in mind when setting objectives for face-to-face interaction are as follows:

  • Formulate your objectives, taking into account what you know about the individuals with whom you are dealing. Every individual is unique in some respects, and the better you know those you are interacting with—whether employees, peers, superiors, or others—the better you can focus your objectives.
  • Know specifically what you need to accomplish with any specific interaction. In other words, avoid overall objectives that are too large for accomplishment within the context of a single interaction.
  • Although you cannot know in advance whether you will succeed or fail in reaching a particular objective, you should have decided in advance what sort of results would constitute success or failure.
  • Have a clear idea of the likely directions open to you depending on the results of a given interaction. That is, what might you do next if your immediate objective is achieved as envisioned? If the objective is missed altogether? If the results of the interaction indicate the need for an entirely different approach?
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Why and how to set objectives for interaction

Through the conscientious and repeated analysis of interactive behavior, we gradually become proficient at monitoring our own behavior and that of others. This should lead to an improved ability to adapt any particular style of behavior as may be most appropriate to the achievement of our objectives. We come to know ourselves, and we come to know others and how they are likely to react in interaction with us, and thus we pattern our own behavior accordingly.

Quite simply, having an objective in any particular interaction gives you a specific target for which to aim. This target may have to be modified as you acquire new information through the interaction, but it still provides valid direction. The assessment of behavior provides you with essential guidance in choosing how to approach that objective.

We hear much about the desirability of pursuing win-win outcomes as opposed to dealing in win-lose situations. Most working managers would likely profess a preference for win-win outcomes for most interactions; however, many unconsciously structure their interactions as win-lose scenarios. Without necessarily realizing they are doing so, many individuals approach interpersonal communication as though most interchanges end with someone “winning” and someone “losing.”

To some people, communication appears to be a game or a serious competition in which one must always endeavor to “win.” These, of course, are the individuals who will prolong a discussion until they get their way or who will become emotional and resort to argument, perhaps using the deadly weapons of sarcasm, ridicule, name calling, and blaming, the illegitimate tools of communication that serve to inflame and alienate. Many people exhibiting the win-lose mentality enter their interactions with narrowly defined objectives in mind, literally premade decisions that leave no room for negotiation, and they tend to take every “loss” as a personal affront.

We set objectives in order to conceptualize in advance the results we would like to achieve. However, if the objectives are narrow and rigidly defined and take into account only what the initiator of the interaction wants to accomplish, unmindful of the feelings and needs of the other party, the interaction will play out in a win-lose scenario. Should the other party be one of those who must “win” to maintain a sense of self-worth, the stage is set for conflict.

Surely, a genuine win-win situation is not always possible given the variety of communications situations a department manager is likely to become involved in. There are those occasions when one party cannot realistically expect to “win.” Consider, for example, the following situation in which disciplinary action or at least serious criticism is warranted.

The nurse manager of a medical/surgical nursing unit entered the workroom of the unit just in time to see Sally, a nursing assistant whom the manager considered a usually careful worker, commit an act that could only be described as horseplay. Sally’s behavior caused another employee to be startled into dropping and breaking 2 pieces of glassware. In addition to Sally and the person who dropped the glassware, there were 2 other staff members present.

Because the manager personally saw Sally commit the act, there is no room available for Sally to “win” in the inevitable interaction with the manager. The manager can, however, limit Sally’s losses to what is absolutely necessary and can do so in a reasonable manner. Should the manager verbally take off on Sally right on the spot and promise punishment for her action, Sally would find herself criticized in the presence of others (an error for any manager to commit) and would thus “lose” additionally by being berated in the presence of her colleagues. This would suggest that the manager’s hastily formulated objective for the interaction was: Punish Sally and make an example of her for others. This objective violates 2 of the fundamental principles of fair and effective disciplinary action: discipline only in private, never in the presence of others; and never make an example of anyone.

If, along the lines of criticism or disciplinary action properly addressed, the manager were to get Sally alone, describe what was seen and ask Sally for her version of the incident, stress precisely why Sally’s behavior was inappropriate, provide advice for future behavior, and explain how this incident stands in contrast to Sally’s usually good performance, the manager’s implied objective becomes: Correct Sally’s behavior so that similar incidents are avoided in the future. In pursuing this objective, the manager has stayed focused on Sally’s behavior in this specific instance, addressed the problem constructively, and did so in a way that ensures Sally “loses” no more than absolutely necessary. Being disciplined in the presence of others and being held up as an example would constitute personal “losses” for Sally well beyond that which is necessary to inspire correction of behavior.

Objectives then should be established such that they

  • focus specifically on what must be accomplished, avoiding the likelihood of peripheral “losses” that can result when objectives are harshly win-lose in character;
  • employ win-win scenarios when possible;
  • limit any party’s perceived “losses” to the essential minimum; and
  • respect and protect the dignity of any and every party to an interaction.
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USING INTERPERSONAL SKILLS

Some opening assumptions

Given that any particular interaction properly approached begins with certain end-of-interaction objectives in mind, without stretching too far we can safely proceed with the following assumptions about interpersonal communication:

  • There is a connection between the behavior of one party and that of the other; what one says or does will influence what the other says or does.
  • It is possible to arrange one’s outward behavior to influence or shape the behavior of the other party; this may be done unconsciously, or it may be done deliberately.
  • Only the other party’s overt or visible behavior is directly accessible; it is not possible to know precisely what another is thinking or feeling.
  • There is no win-lose scenario, no struggle for dominance in an interchange, if both parties to an interaction have equivalent objectives.
  • Interpersonal skills are far more effective when applied in one-to-one interactions than when applied in a one-on-several or one-on-many situation, where the opportunities for effective behavior shaping are far less available.
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Shaping behavior

Necessarily a 2-way process

The manager who is communicating to convince another person to do something, believe something, or change something is attempting to shape that individual’s behavior. Behavior shaping, however, is frequently a 2-way process, so the person who is attempting to shape another’s behavior may in turn have his or her behavior shaped by the other party. There is, in fact, nothing wrong with this turnabout behavior shaping; this is in part how one learns and how one acquires new information and forms new attitudes and thus legitimately modifies objectives during an interaction.

Frequently, the language of an interaction bears a direct relationship to the behaviors experienced. For example, harsh, accusatory language, name calling, and blame casting signal belligerent, arbitrary, harsh behavior that suggests the interaction is on its way to a win-lose conclusion. This is highly likely to inspire strongly defensive behavior on the other person’s part, setting up a situation in which the likelihood of any meaningful communication occurring is dramatically diminished. Because our behavioral activity is likely to trigger corresponding reactions in response, the initiator of an interaction—we will continue to assume this is the department manager—must be sufficiently disciplined to avoid projecting an overbearing or threatening posture that is likely to turn the interaction into an argument or an exchange of charges and countercharges.

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Strong behavior shapers

Some particular behaviors are more powerful than others in their effectiveness as shapers of the behavior of other people. It will perhaps come as no surprise that these stronger behavior shapers are generally those that provide maximum opportunity for inclusion or participation by the other party. The department manager will surely recognize among the following a number of frequently offered suggestions for eliciting employee cooperation and participation:

  • Seeking suggestions. Asking for suggestions, perhaps even inviting the other party to propose a direction or solution, in effect offering to open the interaction so that it is less likely to be viewed as a 1-way contact.
  • Offering suggestions. Actively offering suggestions and inviting the other party to respond or make counter-offerings.
  • Extending proposals. Offering a tentative proposal, complete with both process and intended result, and again encouraging the other party to either accept, reject, or modify what is presented.
  • Soliciting clarification. Asking for the other party’s understanding of the issue of mutual concern to them, to ensure that both parties are “on the same page.”

If dealing with direct-reporting employees, in utilizing any of the foregoing behaviors make every reasonable effort to tap into the employees’ knowledge of the work of the department. The manager’s knowledge of the department’s work may be superior to that of the individual employees in the macro sense of knowing how all elements fit together in fulfilling the department’s overall objectives, but the manager cannot reasonably expect to know the interior working details of every job in the department. It is always worth remembering that no one has better knowledge of the detailed requirements of a job better than the person who does that job every day.

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Countering another’s shaping behavior

In the majority of face-to-face interactions, each party will have an objective that he or she would like to attain and whether consciously or unconsciously each party will be attempting to shape the other’s behavior such that a personal objective can be achieved. As an example, consider a particular face-to-face encounter between a manager and an employee on the subject of a proposal to change the individual’s daily shift to start and end an hour earlier than previously. The manager’s objective is to convince the employee that the new starting time is appropriate; the employee’s objective, we shall say, is to retain his or her present hours and make no change.

Given the employee’s objective, he or she will likely counter whatever the manager has to say with arguments in favor of making no change. Perhaps he or she pleads transportation problems associated with the proposed change; perhaps he or she cites disruption of child-care arrangements in a manner that suggests the new hours would create hardship for him or her. Perhaps his or her behavior even suggests that he or she believes he or she is being picked on or punished by being forced to change his or her hours.

If the manager buys in to the employee’s arguments and reconsiders the change, the manager has given in to the other’s shaping behavior. This suggests the presence of 1 of 3 possibilities: the proposed change was not really needed and thus could not be “sold”; the employee is the stronger personality and simply overpowered the manager; or the manager was not adequately prepared for the interaction.

There are essentially 3 ways in which to go about getting employees to adopt a given change: the manager can tell them what to do, sell them on what must be done, or involve them in determining what must be done. In manager-to-employee interactions, the first way, tell them, is likely to generate resistance; it might get done, but there will likely be resentment and less than whole-hearted cooperation. With anyone, and especially with direct-reporting employees, the telling route is most likely to trigger significant shaping behavior. When the manager in our example says, in effect, “Here’s your new schedule, like it or not,” this manager can expect significant resistance and thus significant shaping behavior from the employee. Should the manager try to convince the employee: “We need to change your starting and quitting times by 1 hour because—,” resistance may be less than under the telling route, and the employee’s shaping behavior will be less. If the manager can go into the interaction without offering a preconceived solution—say, for example, “We’re having a problem with adequate coverage because of some significant changes in client arrival patterns, let’s put our heads together and see if we can fix it,” resistance is avoided, and shaping behavior by the employee is avoided because manager and employee acquire a common objective: solve the problem. And—who knows?—once drawn into a common objective, the employee may help formulate a more appropriate solution than indicated by the manager’s premade decision.

Therefore, successfully countering shaping behavior requires the following:

  • Advancing one’s ideas as suggestions or possibilities, not as proposals and certainly not as orders or edicts.
  • Avoiding argument.
  • Differentiating between legitimate feedback and emotional reaction (legitimate feedback contributes to problem solving; emotional reaction associates with shaping behavior).
  • Utilizing constructive “idea building” (as in brainstorming), to generate ideas and explore possible paths toward solution.
  • Permitting maximum possible participation and involvement of the other party.
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Changing another’s behavior

This reference to changing another’s behavior concerns behavior change in a planned interaction, action oriented, and undertaken to achieve a specific objective. This is a considerably narrower view of behavior change than that which we would associate with routine disciplinary action. In most instances, the primary purpose of disciplinary action is the correction of behavior; for example, if the manager disciplines an employee for chronic tardiness, the primary purpose of the action is to encourage the employee to no longer be tardy. But behavior change within the context of an interpersonal contact requires an exclusive focus on the behavior of the other party during that specific interaction.

Changing another’s behavior begins with carefully observing the person’s behavior and feeding back observations that can make the other party aware of the behavioral characteristics coming across in the interaction. If, for example, the other party is told that he or she is “beginning to speak faster and louder and is starting to show signs of agitation,” which may be all that is needed to bring the communication back into balance. This is eminently workable in the manager-employee relationship, in which the manager controls (or should control) the interaction and can provide feedback that may sound corrective in nature. Diplomatically approached, this process may also be fully appropriate in interactions between peers, as in, say, a manager-to-manager interaction.

Another’s behavior is changed by providing the person with constructive feedback, keeping the interaction on track toward its intended objective, and providing whatever support and encouragement may be necessary to ensure the other party’s active participation.

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FACTORS REDUCING INTERPERSONAL EFFECTIVENESS

The most commonly encountered reasons for reduced effectiveness of one-to-one interactions are conflicting objectives, shortage of time, emotional arousal, and inadequate listening.

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Conflicting objectives

There is an age-old exercise in improvisation that involves a one-to-one interaction in which the 2 parties each receive their instructions in private and are then required to play out a scene based on what they have been told. Each is to react extemporaneously to what the other says. An example: The scene is to involve a manager and an employee. The instructions to the “manager” are that this generally valued employee is to be released as part of a company-wide cutback and must be told so as diplomatically as possible. But the “employee” is told that he or she is most likely being called in to be given a promotion and modest pay increase. One can imagine the confusion that can develop in this sort of interaction and can perhaps also envision the extremes to which 2 enthusiastic participants could take this scene.

This example illustrates sharply different objectives in a one-to-one interaction. The “manager” wishes to humanely effect a termination; the “employee” wishes to receive official word of the expected promotion and increase. Although rarely will the objectives in any ordinary workaday interaction be as diverse as those in the example, it is common for the objectives of the 2 parties to differ. Say the manager’s objective is to solve a particular problem by any reasonable means, whereas the employee’s objective is to help solve the problem without acquiring an added assignment. Or perhaps the manager’s objective is to get to the bottom of an apparent quality problem, whereas the employee’s immediate objective is to avoid being blamed for the problem.

One party to the interaction must be in a position to exercise control and influence and remain aware of the need to get both participants “on the same page.” This is ordinarily the person who initiates the interaction for some particular reason. In a manager-employee relationship, it will usually be the manager who must accept responsibility for the interaction and for making every reasonable attempt to ensure a common objective.

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Shortage of time

Shortage of time—or, perhaps more appropriately expressed, time not committed to the extent necessary for effective communication—is a significant cause of ineffective one-to-one communication. Involved with this matter of time is the necessity for feedback in any interaction, feedback that is necessary if only to ensure that the message communicated by one party is properly understood by the other party. Feedback is required to ensure that any interaction constitutes 2-way communication; without feedback, we are left with 1-way communication, which, if we can accept a simple definition of communication as the transfer of meaning, is not communication at all.

Conflicting objectives generally foster frustration and wasted time as participants circle about in search of common ground. Inadequate time devoted to face-to-face communication, especially insufficient time devoted to offering, receiving, and responding to feedback, fosters misunderstanding. It happens more often than one might imagine: Person A says something to person B, person B nods and moves on; A believes that B has received the message as intended, and B believes that he or she has understood the message as intended; yet they part with each having completely different meanings in mind. Such results occur time and again, especially in the work situation, simply because someone does not take the time to obtain verification via feedback.

In most present-day work settings, and especially in health care given its present trend toward leaner staffing, managers and employees alike are usually extremely busy. Busy people feel pressured to make the most of their time, and as they move from problem to problem and issue to issue, they tend not to linger over supposedly “simple” matters; they ask, instruct, order, and move on to the next concern. Many times the absence of feedback causes no problems, and messages are received properly. Many other times, however, without feedback misunderstanding results and problem arise, and the time that was supposedly saved by being “efficient” in communication must be spent, often several times over, in correcting the results of misunderstanding. There is perhaps a certain wisdom in the old, anonymous question: How come there’s never enough time to do it right the first time, but we can always find the time to do it over?

Time and the pressures of time will forever be the enemies of effective interpersonal communication.

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Emotional arousal

The presence of emotion, primarily the negative emotions—anger and all of its variants—reduces the effectiveness of interpersonal communication, often so much so that long-lasting damage results. The latter can occur when someone, usually in the heat of anger, says something that upsets another by causing pain or distress. Doing so is likely to ensure that nothing helpful results from the current interaction, and this behavior can also create a degree of alienation that hampers interactions between these people for some time to come. Although it can perhaps be said that on rare occasions a bit of righteous anger, carefully controlled, can be effective in certain kinds of situations, by and large anger is destructive in interpersonal communication. We can safely say that, in the overwhelming majority of interactions, as the level of anger increases the chances of meaningful communication occurring decrease.

There often seems to be no ready means of overcoming another’s anger in an interaction. Much will of course depend on the style and temperament of the individuals involved. Frequently, anger inspires anger, and an escalating argument ensues. However, it should be recognized that the party who is ostensibly in control of the interaction should assume the responsibility for remaining calm in the face of anger, refusing to be baited and refusing to engage in argument, and doing everything reasonably possible to defuse the other’s anger. In addition to not offering argument, this also means avoiding criticizing, blaming, or contradicting what is said. More often than not the best course of action in the face of anger is to terminate the interaction until such time as tempers cool and rational behavior can prevail.

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Inadequate listening

In interpersonal communication, one can be fully effective in imparting information or reaching an agreement only if the other party is listening effectively. Here lies the greatest shortcoming to be encountered in communicating in the one-to-one relationship: one party can be doing everything right and can be saying the proper things in the right way and behaving respectfully, perhaps even deferentially, and all can be for little or nothing if the other person is not listening.

Listening can be described as communication along 1 of the 4 basic communication channels, the others being reading, writing, and speaking. Two are for incoming information—listening and reading; two are for outgoing information—writing and speaking. Listening, however, differs from the other 3 means in 1 important respect. The others are inherently active processes; one cannot read, write, or speak without making a decision to do so and consciously taking the necessary steps. Listening, however, is not inherently active. That is, because one can “hear” without taking any steps to make it possible, and because there is often no subsequent effort to make listening active, what is being said is taken in superficially with no effort expended to truly understand the message.

The best defense against inadequate listening is, once again, the required use of feedback. If you wish to be certain your message has gotten across, the kind of question not to ask is: Do you understand? Many people, especially employees in interaction with managers, will answer yes whether they fully understand or not. (It is a sad fact of business life to know that there are occasional managers who take offense if it seems as though employees have not understood the great pronouncements upon initial hearing.)

The kind of request to make of the other party: Tell me in your own words what I just asked you to do, so I can make sure we both see it the same way. The forthcoming response will be the sort of deliberately solicited, focused feedback that will reveal the extent to which the person has been listening—as well as allowing the requestor to supplement or clarify the message if necessary. Enforced feedback is the primary defense against inadequate listening.

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CONCLUSION: PRACTICE, PRACTICE

The way to become proficient at just about anything is to make the right moves and make them again and again. Proficiency in one-to-one interactions—interpersonal competence, if you will—is one of the hallmarks of the successful manager of people. Some managers spend as much as three-fourths or more of every workday in face-to-face contacts with others, be they employees, peers, superiors, clients, visitors, suppliers, or whoever. Those managers who may have occasion to feel that all of the people-contact that seems to consume the days to the extent of keeping them from the “real work” have yet to recognize that many of the most important elements of a manager’s “real work” involve face-to-face, one-on-one interactions.

Interpersonal skills are not to be assumed; they are not to be taken for granted. Like any other skills used in business in general and health care in particular, proficiency in their use requires conscientious application and practice.

Keywords:

interactive skills; interpersonal communication; interpersonal competence; interpersonal skills; one-to-one communication

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