What is interpersonal communication? It is a term applied to the verbal and nonverbal interactions in one-on-one or small-group settings. “People skills” and “soft skills” are terms often used to describe someone’s interpersonal abilities. In the workplace, one who has good interpersonal skills can relate to and work with a wide variety of people, negotiate differences, handle conflicts, make requests effectively and receive information objectively. A person who has effective interpersonal communication skills will be open to the ideas of others and willing to put forward views of his or her own – both essential activities in the process of problem solving.

Skills that are critical to effective interpersonal communication involve:

Assertion skills. These verbal and non-verbal behaviours enable you to maintain respect, satisfy your needs, and defend your rights without dominating, manipulating, abusing, or controlling others. Assertion comes from high self-esteem and an acceptance of yourself. Assertive behaviour acknowledges your rights as an individual and the rights of other people. When the occasion demands, an assertive person can disagree, stand up for his/her own rights and present alternative points of view without being intimidated or putting the other person down. In contrast, a person who feels threatened in such situations behaves with aggressive or non-assertive responses rather than with assertive behaviour.

The assertive leader is able to direct others without feeling the need to manipulate or to be aggressive as he/she recognizes the rights of co-workers. The assertive follower recognizes the right of the manager or leader to make reasonable requests and to expect the job to be done. An assertive person is therefore comfortable with himself/herself and is able to negotiate and compromise without feeling uncomfortable.

A useful technique to develop assertion and show openness with others is an “I” message. Many communicators unnecessarily attack the other person when delivering a message: “Your report is too sloppy. You’ll have to retype it.”

Examples of “you” language in this context are: “You’re lazy.” “You’re wrong.” By contrast, descriptive statements are often termed “I” language since they focus on the speaker instead of judging the other person.

The 3-part assertion statement involves

  • a non-judgmental description of the behaviour to be changed;
  • a disclosure of the asserter’s feelings; and
  • a clarification of the concrete and tangible effect of the other person’s behaviour on the asserter.

    In our interpersonal communication with others, it is always good to remember that assertiveness in one culture may be viewed as aggressiveness in another culture so try to adapt. By concrete and tangible effects we mean those things that unnecessarily cost the asserter money, harm his possessions, consume his time, cause him extra work, endanger his job, and/or interfere with his effectiveness at work.

    Another type of assertion skills concerns feedback skills. Giving feedback is always a dangerous act because you will never be 100% sure how the recipient of your feedback will respond to it, much more act on it. But effective communication is based on giving and receiving feedback, and effective feedback creates trust and an open relationship between the sender and the receiver.

    In interpersonal communication, show your receptiveness, attentiveness and interest in the other person by physically attending to them with nonverbal communication. Indicate through spoken communication that you are receptive and willing to listen to the other person.

    In the real world of work, criticism is a fact of life. Sometimes you have to deliver a complaint, and other times you are on the receiving end of others’ gripes. Therefore, it is important that we learn to deliver it effectively and accept it without becoming defensive.

    Feedforward is information sent before the main message. Appropriate, constructive feedforward lets you say something about the message yet to be sent. Appropriate feedforward is brief and clear. The receiver will become side-tracked and have doubts or questions about your motives if feedforward takes too long.

    Listening skills. These skills enable you to understand what another person is saying. They include new ways of responding so that the other person feels his problems and feelings have been understood. These have been discussed briefly at the beginning of the semester.

    There are three situations when we may wish to paraphrase, or re-phrase, the message we have just heard: when we are uncertain of what the other person is saying; when we want the sender to hear and understand what he/she has just said; and when you let the speaker know you want to understand his/her message. Paraphrasing the other person’s message gives an understanding response that shows your desire to understand rather than evaluate him/her. Paraphrasing is more effective when you restate the sender’s messages in your own words rather than try to repeat the exact same words spoken by the sender.

    Perhaps the only thing more difficult than giving criticism is receiving it. When faced with criticism, people generally respond with “fight or flight” behaviour. Fighting manifests itself as defensive, argumentative or counterattack remarks.

    Conflict-resolution skills. These skills enable you to resolve or manage conflicts effectively and are explained in more detail in the supplementary notes.

    Conflict is inevitable. Conflict can occur in your personal life or at work. In the workplace, conflict may arise between you and a co-worker, between two employees you supervise, between your department and another, or between your organization and a customer or client. Its source can be differences in personalities (e.g., extrovert and introvert), goals or expectations, values or beliefs, circumstances (e.g., money and time), or facts (e.g., different sources).

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