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Dana WilsonHuman Resource professionals and headhunters classify skills into two categories, hard skills and soft skills.  “Hard” skills are easier to define because they apply to a specific function – computer programming, database management, driving a truck, piloting a plane, designing a house or office building (architect), building a cabinet (carpenter) or wiring a building (electrician).

Soft skills, on the other hand, embrace all the interpersonal relationships vital to selling a company’s products or services. In the past, many organizations considered hard skills more important than soft ones when considering job candidates. While an IT or engineering company may initially put more weight on technical skills when evaluating job candidates, they look for candidates who have both. They’re ultimately the most valuable because they have the potential to go the furthest.

Quality of interpersonal or people skills is one of the important reasons rank-and-file employees are promoted to management positions. As they move up the organizational ladder people skills become even more important.

Here are our four tip to improving people skills:

1.  Learn to conduct productive conversations. Comfortable people skills open the door for easygoing conversation. Excellent rapport between people is built through conversation. Initially, conversation may be hard to start. That’s why it’s important not to think about the structure of a conversation. Be open to conversations that you are unprepared for. Focus on the interests of the other person rather than your own. And look for opportunities to ask non-threatening questions.

It may seem awkward at first, but it sets the stage for a respectful exchange. Good decisions are usually made when the right questions are asked.

And don’t let anxiety or tension stand in your way.  It’s normal to be nervous when interacting with people for the first time. Most people mistakenly dwell on discomfort, failing to realize that the other person is nervous as well.  So take it as a given and use small talk (the weather, the economy, sports) as a bridge to relaxed and comfortable rapport.

2. Read body language. Successful salespeople have learned how to get a reading on people based upon their facial expressions, gestures, posture and eye contact. Once they read the body signals in others, they can apply it to themselves. A relaxed expression and constant eye contact communicate a sense of self-confidence and poise that relax the person you’re dealing with, making it easier to sell a product or rally support for a position.

3. Seek feedback and criticism. It takes time and hard work to build strong people skills. Learning can only take place if you’re constantly seeking feedback and criticism.  Open yourself up to the notion of lifelong learning and bettering yourself.

4. Master listening. Masterful communicators have learned that building a comfortable rapport is finding the divine balance between speaking and listening. Most people are too intent on speaking. They don’t realize that the only way to get a true reading on another person is to listen to what they have to say. It sounds obvious. But listening often involves learning how to be silent and waiting for the other person to express his viewpoint. Silence often opens the door to active, fruitful conversation. In time, you’ll learn to be an empathetic listener.

Empathetic listeners are listening not just to be polite, but because of a genuine desire to understand the person they are speaking with. As soon as honest concern is sensed, the door is opened to sharing information. It’s a simple concept that leads to winning contracts, solving technical and business problems and mediating interpersonal conflicts – even saving lives.

Dana Wilson is a freelance writer.

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