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What are 'interpersonal skills' and why do employers look out for them?

Happy businesswomen discussing with female colleague in office
One of the most important interpersonal skills in any job is communication. Photo: Getty

Employers are looking for various things in a new hire. Not only do they need the candidate to have skill and ability to do the job, they also want to make sure the person will get along with the rest of the team.

Often called people skills, interpersonal skills tend to combine both your innate personality traits and how you’ve learned to handle certain social situations. Effective interpersonal skills can help you sail through the job interview process and can also have a positive impact on your career advancement.

“Interpersonal skills, also commonly known as soft skills, are related to the way we communicate and interact with people,” Kate Palmer, associate director of HR advisory at Peninsula.

“When hiring, interpersonal skills are generally one of the top criteria used by employers when trying to assess candidates. This is because, for the majority of jobs, you need to have a good working relationship with colleagues, managers, customers and suppliers.”

One of the most important interpersonal skills in any job is communication, Palmer adds. “Regardless of what industry people you work in, you need to be able to communicate clearly and effectively with others through both oral and written communications,” she says.

Why employers look for people with interpersonal skills

Most jobs require you to interact and communicate with a wide range of people. Even if you’re self-employed and work alone rather than in an office, you’ll still need to be able to communicate well with clients.

“Even positions that typically favour introverted personalities and independent working styles such as a software developer and statistician will still need to be able to communicate and collaborate with a team,” Palmer says. “Your ability to do so effectively can make the difference between a successful working life, and a challenging one.

“Of course, there are some jobs in which strong interpersonal skills are more critical than others. For example, customer-facing roles, such as sales and customer service, are likely to specify good interpersonal skills as a necessity.”

READ MORE: Is it possible to disagree with an interviewer in a job interview?

For some, communicating with people comes naturally — and it isn’t something they have to think about. But for others it can be a little more challenging. However, having good interpersonal skills are the foundation for all social relationships, not just work ones — therefore it’s worth spending time working on your interpersonal skills.

“The first step towards improving your skills is to develop your knowledge of your strengths and weaknesses,” Palmer advises. “You may already be aware of the areas that you need to build on. However, it is worth seeking feedback from other people such as your colleagues and friends, because it is easy to develop blind spots about yourself.”

Think about how you communicate with other people. It’s actually far more than just the words that come out of your mouth. “When you are talking, think about the words you are using. Could you be misunderstood or confuse the issue? Learn to seek feedback or clarification from others to ensure your message has been understood,” Palmer says.

“By using questions effectively, you can both check people’s understanding, and also learn more from them.”

READ MORE: How 'weak ties' can help women get ahead at work

It’s also important to recognise, manage and reduce stress in yourself, which can negatively impact the way you act with other people. “You are less likely to communicate well if you are stressed and anxious about something,” adds Palmer. “Being able to remain assertive, without becoming either passive or aggressive, is vital to effective communication.”

There are many situations in which you need to use interpersonal skills. Consciously putting yourself in those positions, and practising your skills, then reflecting on the outcomes, will help you to improve.

“For example, group work is a typical situation, both at home and at work, which gives you plenty of opportunities to work on your skills,” she adds. “The final element in advancing your interpersonal skills is to develop the habit of self-reflection. Taking time to think about conversations and interactions will enable you to learn from your mistakes and successes, and continue to grow.”