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Elevating People Skills

Despite its advantages, social media often screams with self-absorbed postings, and hyperreactions well outside the bounds of personal courtesy.


So-called “news” hours bypass facts as they devolve into animosity-charged politics.


Remote workplaces often reduce person-to-person touch points to cryptic, bleached



A surge in “intelligent” machines promises progressive innovation, but at what long-term human cost? 


Our social interactions are becoming briefer, more fragile, and brazenly utilitarian.  We’re in an age of pronounced relationship disconnection that some link to broader “societal regression.” 


Heightened anxiety in any society accelerates regression. The signs are sobering:  Extreme sensitivity, dishonesty, and isolation tear at a healthy social fabric. Words become weapons.  Blame proliferates. Divisiveness reigns.


I’ve been asking myself how I contribute to these turbulent headwinds, where reasonableness flies away like startled crows.


Like the leaders I work with, I suffer from a lack of healthy vulnerability on one end of a spectrum, and fear of offending others on the other.  Both extremes thwart connection. 


How can we buck the trajectory of disconnection and build healthy interactions with our family members, direct reports, and team members?


I’m working on increasing five people skills in my life and work:


Skill 1:  Presence:  Replacing “quick and sure” with “slow and curious.”


Being present to another is the foundation of all other connection skills.  “Presence” means slowing ourselves down in conversations, introducing pauses, speaking thoughtfully instead of reactively, and staying curious. 


No technique or tool can substitute for genuine interest and caring.


The people closest to us every day need to be heard.  Our capacity to “hear” – to show up as fully-engaged listeners – transforms conversations, even brief ones, into connective exchanges.   


Skill 2:  Getting the backstory.


A man I knew was released from prison after a 30-year sentence.  I invited him for dinner.  During the meal, I noticed he ate quickly, chewing with his mouth open. This happened on several occasions before I gathered the nerve to ask why he ate so quickly.


“In prison,” he said, “we had 10 minutes to eat a meal in the mess hall.  You train yourself to eat fast.  You don’t think about manners, you think about getting your fill.”


His backstory helped me understand a behavior I initially reacted to with frustration and disgust.  I had never considered what he told me.  Once he named it openly, my trivial annoyance morphed into compassion. 


Getting the backstory requires harnessing automatic impulses to judge or shut down behaviors we find unsavory, before understanding those behaviors.  The medicine for premature judgments is entering learning mode: “I want to get a more complete picture.” 


Skill 3:  Communicating as an equal.


One of my clients, a company founder, is keenly aware of the power imbalance that’s created simply because she owns the business.  She tries to close that status gap by meeting managers on their turf whenever possible, and by asking questions that convey genuine interest.


No one appreciates being addressed in a one-down fashion. This also applies in families:  A 43-year-old, and youngest of six siblings, told me that one of his sisters has never related to him as an adult.  “She still talks to me like I’m her kid brother.”


Leaders who treat others as “functional equals” not only gain respect, they also learn more about what’s really going on in their families and workplaces.


Skill 4:  Asking questions to deepen understanding.


A nurse who helps deliver babies told me that predictable things happen when mothers are in labor, yet every delivery is different.  “We are always checking in with the mother, and with others in the room,” she said.  “We don’t want to make assumptions.  Every situation is unique, because every person is unique.”


That insight fits most interactions.  Rich exchanges dance to the drum beat of questions seeking understanding.  Not “grilling” or “gotcha” questions.  But questions that truly seek deeper understanding, and often bring new information.


Skill 5:  Showing up authentically.


Who can deny the desire to put one’s best foot forward?  Looking impressive is the singular motive for most social media, and what we’ve all been taught.  But if the goal is meaningful connection, impressiveness becomes a deterrent.


The alternative?  Genuineness.  What crossroads are you at?  What do you want to be celebrating a year from now?  What are your most persistent fears?  It’s easy for me to over-rely on expertise and personality, without exposing my unsureness and foibles – my humanity.  I’m discovering that those around me don’t need to be dazzled.  They mostly want to know I’m in the boat with them.  


I’m working on elevating these important people skills in my own life and work. Consider this your invitation to join.




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