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.

  1. They don’t know change is an option.
  2. They don’t know why they should choose change.
  3. 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!

Additional Resources

Some of Dr. K’s information products


  1. What a wise post! There’s so much great information here.

    Knowing what you want is really important. If you don’t know that, you’ve got no direction and nothing to work towards, except for avoiding what you don’t want.

    Thanks for inviting Dr. K. I really enjoyed his visit. 🙂

  2. I liked “Lesson #2 Assume Positive Intent” the most! It is better this way – that way you create vulnerability based trust, the real one. I fires back at me sometimes but in much many more cases it pays back

    Loved that

  3. Thanks for the post. I am looking forward to reading his books. I will add some of the points here to my personal mission statement. I like the simple and sometimes humorous like the fourth point under Lesson 5!

  4. This is interesting stuff. I find it incredibly difficult, if not impossible, to change other people or even move them toward change. These, however, are good tips for getting positive results and encouraging desirable behavior. Now I’m interested in the reading the whole book 😉

  5. Interesting stuff. Especially the assume postive intent. Even those whose actions are less than positve are doing so for reasons they believe to be good / to meet some need. Whether its something as relatively harmless (overall) as office politics to extremely toxic behavior.

  6. I enjoyed this post. It offers excellent tips. Interpersonal skills are life skills. Tips #2 and #8 spoke especially to me today. I intend to put these tips into greater practice. Thanks for sharing!

  7. Dr. K brings out a different dimension here. Very interesting. Some of them correlate to lessons I have learnt from you over time. The most important one being “Begin with the end in mind”.
    What I really want to have inculcated in my everyday life is to create a context for a result. It is a very strong feeling. As Dr. K puts it, Perception is everything.
    The other interesting section is relating changes in behavior to changes in priorities, and others’ perception of this behavior. It allows us to visualize both sides of the coin, and bring out more positives.

  8. As a pessimistic Brit it seems to be culturally ingrained to think the worst in people. I think its deep ingrained in our history and culture. I rebelled from the “sickly sweet” political correctness of California business life (news flash: everyones not created equal so I won’t treat them equal) and am happy to tackle conflict head on. As I have matured (some may say grown up) I have found that a blend of the proven styles found in American business actually pays dividends. By blended I mean adapted to my own dry sense of humor and culture and delivered in my own style not verbatim. I have come to believe that this is because of “meet people where they are”.
    Assuming good intent is common throughout many belief systems including Buddhism. I am glad you caveated it with #9;-)
    I think many mental agility truisms are much like physical health. A lot of small changes have a bigger affect that one big change to one thing. The balanced diet!

  9. I too like #2 Assume Positive Intent. I also believe that most people mean well when they make a choice. What usually happens is we take their choices/actions the wrong way. If only we would just ask them what they really meant by their choice, we might not get so upset.

  10. A thoughtful post, Dr. K. Much resonated with me. For example, #3 Know What You Want is fundamental. It aligns with my approach to life, Intentional Living. However, I’ve not thought to integrate it into my day-to-day communications. This is an excellent idea!

    #5 Listen To Go Deep is a good step for me. Listening is not second-nature for me, something I constantly & consciously strive to be better at.

    I chuckled when I read #6 Choose Your Words Carefully. Over a decade ago I made a casual statement to a customer which was not well-received. (This also speaks to #7 Relationships are About Perrceptions.) The fallout resulted in my enrollment in Dale Carnegie training–one of the best things I’ve ever done.

    Thanks much, Dr. K.

  11. I can see why lesson #1 is the top lesson. That one really spoke out to me … also #5 was great one too. As a business owner, I’ve learned the hard way that you really do need to listen to your customers if you ever expect to develop a nice long term relationship with them. I’ve been on business calls where the sales guy just doesn’t listen and then when they don’t get the sale they are completely perplexed as to why they didn’t achieve their desired goals. Answer: Listen! Great article,


  12. Excellent information. Looking forward to reading your books for more details. ‘Relationships Are About Perception’ really resonates with me.

  13. Inside large organizations such as Microsoft I think we reactively end up spending almost as much time focusing on social engineering as we do on technical engineering in order to get our work released with all the right parties in support.

    If we keep the points summarized above in mind I think it might be possible to reduce unnecessary friction resulting in more productive proactive collaborations, resulting in us spending more time on what we want to be spending time on. Good post – thanks.

  14. What a great post, one of the best I’ve read. There is so much here that resonates for me, its hard to figure out where to begin! I think the one area where I see people fail spectacularly, is Assume Positive Intent. Its in my nature to do this, and when I see others assuming otherwise (about myself or others) it always baffles me. And then I see the fall out. Failed goals, failed projects, failed careers and failed marriages. Its amazing when you can see so much failure tied back to this one simple lesson. If you Assume Positive Intent you bring the best out of yourself and others almost automatically. Obviously you can’t be naive and if someone proves otherwise you need to learn there may not be positive intent :). But in the absence of information, positive intent is a great assumption.

    A corollary to this, something taught to me by a manager long ago, is to assume everyone you work with is a professional until they prove otherwise. This means you should treat employees and co-workers with respect, trust them, give them the leeway to do their best, show them what needs doing but don’t always tell them _how to do it, allow freedom and fun in the workplace, etc.

  15. Thank you for the guest post, I appreciated getting to know this fellow and about his writing – thank you for discovering and sharing this resource.

    I and not tell you how often #5 has come in handy – for myself, I used to talk into a tape recorder when I was trying to work out a problem, and then listen back and take notes to figure out and hear what I was actually saying. I have found if I become a tape recorder to people who give me dis-ease…and I just concisely repeat what they were saying, they are satisfied.

    Most of the people who make me feel un-easy do not listen to themselves or me!

    #9 I need to work on – I am so intense a person and I so appreciate when someone can ignite my funny bone’s response, but have so much trouble doing it for others.

    Thank you JD very good way to start the week a day late !

  16. Great post. The perceptions that we build among those we work with can be so detrimental to our success. The section that talks about having a common vision combined with understanding how others work and perceive us is so important. Once in a while you come across a challenge where no matter how hard you try you cannot connect with the other person. In those cases I feel it is better to move on, but before you do it is good to identify why the individual is unwilling to connect with you. Taking this approach you may find a valuable lesson in life that you normally would have missed.

  17. Thanks to everyone for the great feedback, I’ve really enjoyed reading your responses to the article! If you have questions, I’d love to hear them, you can post them here! And your comments are always welcome on my blog,

  18. Wow, bang on! All are good but number 9, the humor certainly resonates. As long as the other guy is not real mad, then he might get ever madder if you tried to insert a little levity, but I guess that goes back to number 2 and assuming he’s mad for good reason. And hopefully not picking up a 2×4 and heading your way, oy.

    And the name of his book ‘Dealing With People You Can’t Stand.’ Brilliant attention getter. But he delivers, what a winner! Like your blog.

  19. Hi J.D.

    Back in the School days, Interpersonal Relationship was my favorite topics. A lot of this brings back memory 🙂
    I like Lesson# 9 the best.
    Thanks for sharing.
    Giovanna Garcia
    Imperfect Action is better than No Aciton

  20. A lot of good stuff in here. The listening part struck me as I tend to talk a lot. 🙂 Definitely a skill I would like to develop.

    Interesting on #2. I’ve used a modified form of this for years, but it’s more along the lines of “actions that seem malevolent are usually done from ignorance”. That is, few people really want to hurt someone else or be ineffective, but they may not know any other way to be. I had to go through this process with my spouse when she would tear me down and namecall in arguments. She didn’t know any other way to be. But this is a little past business. And she’s had to deal with a few of my behaviors in the same manner.

    I can see it’s about framing others motivations from the starting point of they are not “out to get you”.


  21. Thanks so much to Dr. K for the post and to JD for encouraging it.

    It’s wise, practical and short. A gem!

    The intention with my comment is to reflect and then learn.

    Motivation to change is a starting point for me. Often, I see this, when people have had bad experiences. The process may start with a strong wish to avoid similar experiences in the future which later may develop into “what you want” (#3).

    Then allow me to use my NLP experience and apply that lens to provide a perspective:

    Stay positive is a theme of #1 (assume something useful), #2 (assume positive intent), #7 (perception) and #8 (project and expect the best), whether it’s your perception of others (#1 & #2) or their perception of you (#7).

    Creating rapport is the focus for #4(meet people where they are), #5 (listen to go deep) and #9 (laughing).

    Maintaining rapport is core for #8 (project and expect the best) and #10 (changes in stages). Use “carrots”.

    I’ll finish with a couple of thoughts:

    Think about relationship as something you invest in for life and keep the opportunity for dialog open; i.e. maintain rapport.

    When you give or ask for feedback be specific what the ideal action, measure and reaction would be. Focus on a better future – together.

    Explore and understand possible differences in values (like the golden rule), when you want to achieve something with another person. Then build that into how you interact with that person. Recognize you build stronger relationships with people you share core values with.

    In work environments, it is great to have a shared vision and the resources that make room for everyone to grow and be the best they aspire to be. In one group, we had the vision to “change the world” (#8) and we did. Maybe it’s time to consider a family vision.

    You can expand some of these ideas to a group instead of one person.

    Thanks again to Dr.K and JD!

  22. First, thanks again to you all for the feedback!

    I wanted to briefly reply to something Per wrote. “Maybe it’s time to consider a family vision.” It’s a great idea, one we used in my family in raising my daughter (now 32) and that dates back a long ways (family time, dinner time) where everyone gathers round the table and talks about vision and values.

    I tried this approach: “If anything was possible to us as a family, what would we do?” followed by “Why that?” and then, “Ok, let’s say we did that. What else would we do?” The vision of our family was motivating, and the values we articulated (why that) allowed us to bring them into our daily relationships regardless of whether we could make the vision happen.

    We didn’t do this consistently, but did it enough to realize real benefits from it.

    So many great questions for families to dialog about. “How do we want to be with each other?” “How do we want to deal with this situation?” “What can we learn from this?” “What matters most to us in dealing with this?” Such open ended questions and the conversation that ensues can really bring a family together and create bonding and empowerment. Of course, if you wait until you have angry teens, you may have missed the moment!

    In my speaking and training work, I tell my audience what I’m about to tell you. The universe isn’t arbitrary, and what works is what works. If it works at home, it has a business application. If it works at work, it has a personal application. YOu may need to be creative and flexible to find the application, but its there.

    Best wishes,

  23. Really great stuff here. #10 was such a great reminder. often we get frustrated (in all kinds of different situations) when others around us seem to refuse to change. We simply fail to realize the reasons why it could be happening. The first option–“They don’t know change is an option”–is simple, but especially profound. It’s common to assume it’s a given they they know it is possible.

  24. Hi J.D. and Dr. K,

    Thank you for this fabulous post. As I was reading it I kept saying, “that’s my favorite part” and then I would read the next one and say the same. It turned out, each point is so important to us and how we live our lives.

    I really like the part (#8)about, “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.”. That is so true at work and in life. If we make time and give others a chance, they rarely fail to prove us wrong.

  25. Thank you J.D. and Dr. K! For me knowing, and admitting, what I want in life are the hardest of interpersonal skills. Sometimes coming to the conclusion is the best reward though. 🙂

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