Crucial Skills®

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How to Improve Your People Skills

Dear Crucial Skills,

I have received feedback that my people skills are weak and that I am too direct, and I have been working to improve my performance in this area. I thought I had closed the performance gap, but based on feedback I’ve received, I think the behavior may still be present. Do you have any suggestions on how I might improve my people skills?

Too Direct

Dear Too Direct,

Given the distance, anonymity, and lack of details of your circumstance, it would be easy to share a few old adages as advice. However, I’d like to be as specific as I can so let me give it a whirl. I’d like to share a few questions you could ask yourself and suggest a few tactics that will hopefully help you and our other readers.

First Question: What is the source of the feedback? Often, the feedback we receive comes from a manager. That feedback naturally becomes important, but sometimes you need to clarify that feedback by seeking additional sources. What does a mentor think about the feedback? What does a coworker think about the feedback? What do your direct reports think about the feedback?

You are not trying to negate the feedback; you are trying to clarify it, and other perspectives can help. For example, you might have a conversation that goes like this. “Could we talk about a confidential topic? I’ve received feedback that I need to improve my people skills and that I’m too direct.” (Notice I didn’t use weak; I think that word is too value loaded.) “I’m wondering what specific behaviors you’ve seen and what advice you would give me.” Again, the purpose is to get clarity, not to get evidence to refute your boss.

Second Question: Is the feedback specific? In your particular case, I think the feedback is too vague. “People skills are weak and too direct” are both bundles of behaviors or conclusions. Neither will help you improve your behavior and thus your results and relationships. Clearly, the tactics in the first question are related to this issue of clarity.

In this second question, the responsibility rests entirely with you to ask enough questions to make sure you know specifically what the feedback means at the behavioral level. What are you actually saying or doing that reflects poorly on your people skills. What behaviors are at the root cause of your manager’s concern? When you receive the feedback, be sure to ask questions for clarity. If you don’t immediately ask questions and need time to reflect on your behavior first, be sure to take the time you need and then return to your manager and uncover specifics behind his or her concerns. Here are a few clarifying questions you might ask:

  • Could you tell me what you mean by “my people skills are weak?”
  • Could you share a specific example of something I did or didn’t do that has caused you to think this about me?
  • Do you have any suggestions for handling similar situations in the future?

Similarly, you could ask questions about what was meant by being “too direct.” To dive deeper here, ask for specific times when you are too direct. Does your directness show up as anger or sarcasm? When you give feedback, do you roll your eyes? Do you come in with a monologue and seldom ask questions to get another’s perspective? Do you focus on the task at the expense of the relationship?

Some managers clearly value accuracy more than harmony—they value getting it right more than they value getting along. The best managers demonstrate that they value both. Do you play “gotcha” but never give praise or encouragement? Are you all business and no play? Do you only “lose it” when there is a deadline or a missed budget, or do you hold everyone accountable for every little thing? I won’t go on and on about the variations of being “too direct,” but hopefully you can see what I mean by getting clarity at the behavioral level.

At the end of this conversation, you should be more aware of what behaviors you need to change, and you can then make a specific behavioral plan to improve your people skills.

Third Question: What can I do to improve? If you have clarity about the issue and that clarity has been enhanced by talking to others, you should be able to make a plan. I turn here to Change Anything: The New Science of Personal Success for a couple of key tactics.

Begin by asking yourself, “What results do I want?” You might want your boss to give you a 4 or 5 on a performance appraisal instead of a 2 or 3. Or you might simply want him or her to state that you have improved in your next one-on-one meeting.

Do you know your crucial moments? In what circumstances and with whom do you become too direct? When are you tempted to become angry and use sarcasm and not ask questions or listen? When you can pinpoint your moments of weakness, you will be more prepared to behave differently if and when these crucial moments arise.

What are the vital behaviors you’ll use in these crucial moments? For example, you might identify these vital behaviors:

  • When I see a performance issue, I will remain calm and ask myself, “Why would a reasonable, rational, decent person do that?”
  • I will begin all conversations with an observation and question, not an emotion and conclusion.
  • If I lose my temper or become sarcastic, I’ll call time out and sincerely apologize.

There could be many different crucial moments and vital behaviors, but you need to select yours. And you’ll need to marshal enough sources of influence to help yourself stick to your behaviors. Do you vividly understand what will happen if you don’t improve and what the benefits will be if you do? Do you have the skills to enact your behaviors? Do you have the support of friends? Do you have cues to remind you about what you have committed to do?

If you get enough sources of influence to encourage and enable you, you can make improvement almost inevitable. You will have created your own plan which will lead to your success.

I wish you well,

Develop Your Crucial Skills

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4 thoughts on “How to Improve Your People Skills”

  1. Barb

    Depending on the tone – for example not using sarcasm, it is often better to be direct than beat around the bush. That way everyone knows what is the problem. I have used both ways, and sometimes staff just doesn’t get it when you make a recommendation rather than straight out say what you really mean. Direct communication and transparency are good principles.

  2. Bridget

    Great reminder to begin the conversation with an observation and a question, not an emotion and conclusion.

  3. Tom

    Unfortunately I think most of the managers I know focus more on the task at the expense of the relationship(s). This approach will only last so long before employees become less engaged and eventually check out. When that happens you start down a path that will not lead to good results for anyone. The ignorance and denial out there is so common it’s scary. I think Al provides a lot of good suggestions for those who honestly want to make a change for the better.

  4. Karina

    I agree with Al that the information provided was too vague. I recently needed to confront someone who claimed that he was “Direct” and “Directness part of his personality”, and any offence was just my perception. The fact is that I was able to state specific behaviors that were inappropriate e.g.”cutting people off”, “not providing direction”, and “confronting and correcting people in front of other team members”. His behaviors are ongoing and he justifies them. I am glad to hear that you are a person wanting and willing listen and grow. That shows character and integrity. Perhaps asking the person who gave you the feedback to provide you with specific actions or behaviors to work on, you can have somewhere to begin.

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