Top 10 Lessons Learned in Interpersonal Skills
Editor’s note: This is a guest post on lessons learned in bringing out the best in people by Dr. Rick Kirschner (aka Dr.K). Dr. K is an international bestselling author, including Dealing with People You Can’t Stand: How to Bring Out the Best in People at Their Worst and Insider’s Guide To The Art Of Persuasion . As a professional speaker, he presents to some of the world’s best known organizations, from Heineken to NASA to Starbucks. He’s been interviewed on hundreds of radio and television programs, including CNBC, FOX and CBC. What I like about Dr.K is his ability to share profound knowledge for improving relationships. He tells insightful stories, wraps things in simple models and has catchy ways to remember good rules of thumb. Without further ado … here’s Dr.K.
My business is all about positive change, about taking what is and making it better, by improving, enhancing, simplifying, or taking it to the next level. For the past three decades, in both my coaching practice and my training work, I’ve been observing human behavior in personal and organizational relationships for meaningful patterns of what works and doesn’t work to bring about positive change. With what I’ve learned, I’ve authored or coauthored 7 books as a result of this research, my last book on influence and persuasion, and my 8th due early next year on building connections. My most popular work to date is ‘Dealing With People You Can’t Stand.’
Recently, at J.D.’s request, I gave some thought to what I consider to be the top ten lessons I’ve learned about bringing out the best in people. This article is my first take on the topic. The list might change given more time, but this is my initial thinking on the subject. I’d like to know what you think of the list!
Summary of Lessons Learned
- Lesson #1: Make Useful Assumptions
- Lesson #2 Assume Positive Intent
- Lesson #3: Know What You Want
- Lesson #4: Meet People Where They Are
- Lesson #5: Listen To Go Deep
- Lesson #6: Choose Your Words Carefully
- Lesson #7: Relationships Are About Perception
- Lesson #8: Project and Expect The Best
- Lesson #9: Keep Your Wits About You
- Lesson #10: Create Change In Stages
Lesson #1: Make Useful Assumptions
Assumptions determine behavior. Behavior produces experiences. Experiences reinforce initial assumptions. And whatever you assume to be true, you act like it’s true and look for proof. This is the loop of self fulfilling prophecy, or what I like to call the ‘nature of sanity.’ Sanity is that mental state in which you think you know who you are, where you are, and in general, what’s going on. Said another way, you get to be right about whatever you assume to be true, and being right is the booby prize in communication. (Booby prize = the prize given to losers when someone else wins)
The challenge with assumptions is to make useful ones rather than limiting ones. A useful assumption gives you enough informed perspective on your own behavior and the behavior of others that you can engage in behaviors that lead to worthwhile outcomes. Limiting assumptions inhibit your creativity and resourcefulness, trigger negative reactions in you, and cause you to engage in behaviors that lead to limiting yet self-fulfilling outcomes. “I knew he wouldn’t listen.” “I knew she didn’t care.” Did you? Then you win the booby prize, which is the prize the losers get.
Now you may be thinking, “Yeah, but what if I AM right?” Well, what if? Does it help you or hinder you to be right? If you must assume something, assume something useful.
Lesson #2 Assume Positive Intent
I find it a useful assumption that people do what they do for a good reason, even the most difficult behavior. Behavior changes as priorities change, so I’ve identified four general positive intentions that you can assign to people in almost any situation to good effect. They are action, accuracy, approval and appreciation.
When action is your highest priority, your awareness of other people becomes peripheral, or limited to that which is necessary to accomplish your aim. If things are taking too long, you may become careless and aggressive, leaping before you look, and speaking without thinking first. Others perceive this as pushy behavior.
When accuracy is your highest priority, you will slow things down in order to see the details, and you may refuse to take action because of a particular doubt about the consequences. If you’re afraid of something going wrong, you will find fault and point out problems. Others may perceive this as ‘being negative.’
When gaining approval is your intent, you’ll put their needs above your own. And if you’re concerned about disapproval, you may say yes when you mean no, or maybe when a decision is called for. Others may perceive this as being unreliable.
When gaining recognition drives you, you need a higher level of assertiveness in order to be seen, heard, and recognized. If it seems you’re unrecognized or ignored, you may act out, explode in anger, take credit where it isn’t due or misrepresent something so as not to appear undeserving. Others may perceive this as distracting and disruptive.
Each of these intents has a time and place in our lives. Recognize these intents in others and you can speak to their need, lower their stress and increase their receptivity to your communication. Recognize your own intent and you can more easily ask for what you need from others. Balanced, you can reduce stress and improve communication effectiveness.
Lesson #3: Know What You Want
The first question a doctor is taught to ask a patient is, “What is your chief complaint?” or “What’s wrong?” Everyone has the answer to that kind of question. Everybody knows what they don’t want, including you. Complaining is easy. But when you’re unhappy and stuck, I can you what your problem is. The problem is that if all you know is what you don’t want, you will get more of it. The challenge in life, and in communication specifically, is to define a direction, and organize yourself around that outcome. You’ve heard the expression, “Begin with the end in mind.” Knowing your desired outcome is a fundamental key to purposeful and productive interpersonal behavior.
Lesson #4: Meet People Where They Are
What is it about people that makes some so easy to relate to, and others so difficult to deal with? United We Stand, Divided We Can’t Stand Each other. Conflict occurs when the emphasis in an interaction or a relationship is on the differences between people. You get along better with people when you build on a foundation of similarities between you. The difference between conflict with a friend and conflict with a difficult person, is that with a friend the conflict is tempered by the common ground you share. Success in communication depends on finding common ground before attempting to redirect the interaction toward a new outcome. People reduce differences naturally when they share a common vision, care about each other, or want to deepen a relationship. We do this with facial expressions, animation and body posture, with our voice volume and speed, and conceptually with our words. But as natural as it is with people that you like or share an objective with, it may stop when you perceive someone or something as difficult. The key to this lesson is that no one cooperates with anyone who seems to be against them. People need to know “Are you with me or not?” Seek common ground.
Lesson #5: Listen To Go Deep
If you’re going to bother to listen to someone, then listen to go deep. There are at least four great reasons to do this. First, people want to be heard and understood when they talk. Second, people like to hear themselves talk. Even shy people, who may like it so much they save it for special occasions! Let them talk, you get some credit for their enjoyment. Third, people are drawn to people who listen. The most effective leaders, managers, parents and teachers are great listeners, and the result is that they can respond to what’s going on sooner than those who weren’t listening. But the most compelling reason to listen well is that often, people don’t know what they’re talking about. This accounts for all the ironic and paradoxical communications that you hear. If they don’t know what they’re talking about, and neither do you, listening well gives both of you a chance to find out.
Lesson #6: Choose Your Words Carefully
I value words. When I was a medical student, my mentor told me that two abilities distinguish the exceptional doctor from the acceptable doctor, knowing how to listen and how to talk. Why? “Because most patients would get better if their doctors would just listen to them, and most doctors make their patients sick by the way they talk to them.” Words well chosen help people turn knowledge into action. They have the power to motivate, stir memory and vision. And words that spring from a narrowed mind can polarize a situation. Words that carry too much certainty and importance can build a wall. And words spoken without thought can complicate your true meaning. You can say more with less, and achieve more with less, if you choose your words carefully.
Lesson #7: Relationships Are About Perception
Ever been told, “You’re not listening to me!” but you heard them say it? Obviously, you were listening, yet somehow, they failed to perceive it. If you don’t know how people see you, hear you and think about what you say, or what they need to see, hear and experience in order to consider what you say, what you don’t know can hurt you. Everything you say and do is filtered by perception, which results from a mental process called generalization, where little things add up–both the good and the bad. Why leave this to chance? Instead, add perception to what you do by asking for feedback. First, create context by saying your desired result. “I want to be the best manager you’ve ever had.” “I want our service to exceed your expectations.” “I want to be considered for a promotion.” Then ask for help. “I can’t do that without your help.” Then find out what you’re doing that you could do better, what you’re not doing that you should be doing, and what you’re doing that you should stop doing. Most importantly, ask for the evidence that would tell them that you were or weren’t doing what they tell you. You can use the same basic approach in giving feedback, too. Give people a good reason to hear you. “I want you to succeed at your job.” “I want to have a strong working relationship with you.” “I want to be able to count on you in trying times.” Then offer your help. Small understandings lead to powerful generalizations. Perception is everything.
Lesson #8: Project and Expect The Best
People get defensive when you tell them they’re doing something wrong. You can minimize this by giving them the benefit of the doubt and projecting the best, even when they do things you hope they never do again. Fact is, most people rise or fall to the level of your expectations. This phenomenon has been used by exceptional teachers to turn average students into exceptional ones, by loving wives to turn angry husbands into loving ones, and by stellar managers to turn poorly performing employees into stellar ones. When you talk to someone like they are capable of better than they are behaving, they tend to rush to behave in a way that makes that projection true. When a person does something you don’t like, you may be tempted to think or say “That’s the problem with you. ” Instead, learn to say “That’s not like you!” and then tell them how you want them to be, as if they already are. Use this same approach to reinforce good behavior, no matter how unusual it actually is. “That’s what I like about you,” and then describe the positive behavior as a way of reinforcing their identification with it. By the way, one of the things I like about you is that you’re smart enough to understand and implement my list of 10 lessons! So on to the next one…
Lesson #9: Keep Your Wits About You
People would rather be around someone with a smile in their heart than someone with heartburn in their heart. While too much clowning is disruptive and distracting, a little humor can make someone’s day. Finding humor and sharing it is one of the simplest ways to keep your wits about you. Good humor breaks down the barriers that keep us divided and polarized, and builds bridges to bring us together. Humor discharges resistance, overcomes stubbornness, and creates opportunity for dialog. We open presentations with humor to attract interest. We insert something a little foolish into a meeting to put people on common footing. We do something fun together to create an atmosphere of goodwill that is conducive to meaningful communication. In other words, good humor is a powerful tool for the person serious about creating positive change.
But not all humor is fun, and bad humor is one of the fastest ways to put people in a bad mood, undermine relationships, create hard feelings, offend sensibilities, poison an atmosphere and destroy what could have been a great event, project, team, business, or community. If it is tasteless, please spare us, unless you know us and know that our taste runs all the way to tasteless. Seriously, folks. If you want to know more about light heartedness, pay attention. Because funny happens all the time.
Lesson #10: Create Change In Stages
People don’t suddenly change their behavior. First they have to change their mind. Change happens in stages, and the first stage is ignorance, that state of mind where you don’t know what you don’t know. There are three kinds of ignorance that keep people from changing.
- They don’t know change is an option.
- They don’t know why they should choose change.
- They don’t know how to go about it.
I assume ignorance any time I want to help someone change. It may not to be true, but it forces you not to get too far ahead of yourself, and serves as a reminder to speak clearly, carefully, and coherently in order to bring someone to the next stage, recognition. It’s that moment when people see the light, then seek out and become receptive to new information about options, opportunities and possibilities, and ask about how to go forward.
Provide what is missing and you’re in the next stage, planning. This is the mentoring and modeling stage, where a person begins to organize the new information, access resources, and plot a course. Many change efforts fall in this stage, because the plan was premature. That’s not a signal to jump to the worst conclusions (they didn’t really mean it, they’re incapable of change, etc.) but instead, identify the area of ignorance and restart the cycle.
Now you’re in the action stage, and action happens one step at a time. People making a change need reassurance and encouragement to go forward. And don’t be surprised if there are a few false starts, because when people try something new, things rarely go as expected.
The last stage of change is making a habit, because we are creatures of habit. Habit is created through repetition and intensity. It is a mistake to expect people to go from ignorance to habit in a single step. Don’t push the river, because change happens one stage at a time.
Bringing out the best in people is one of my favorite things to do, and I hope it has this effect on you. I’m eager to read your additions to the list too!
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