May 28, 2018

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People Skills

When owners and managers listen to me conduct an interview they are often impressed. They think I’ve got all these tricks, techniques and shortcuts to finding out what people think. When they ask me how I do it I usually answer something about doing thousands of interviews and people skills.

Few things are as important in business as people skills. Lack of people skills can cause a good business to flounder and never get off the ground. Strength in people skills can give a small market player a big market potential. People skills are sometimes thought of as the ability to get people to do what you want them to do. This is simply manipulation. Manipulation worked pretty well in the early days of the industrial revolution when employees used their bodies more than their brains. It was a simpler time when customers were less sophisticated and employees less demanding.

Business is usually a series of human contacts. Those that are skilled at human contact often get better results than those that are not. Notice the distinction in getting results and manipulating results. As the human animal evolves to a higher level of social being so too must those that deal with humans on a business basis. Dinosaurs always go extinct.

I first became truly aware of people skills in my travelling days. I usually traveled alone and as a consequence I was ‘forced’ to meet new people in new lands with sometimes a new language. After a time I began to develop a ‘traveler’s profile’: a profile of those that had traveled, often alone, that had a perception and a experience level that others did not. It was as though the travel experience could be seen in their personality.

Then when I entered social work and counseling it became apparent that some of my colleagues and coworkers possessed highly developed people skills. They seemed to be able to ‘read’ people with the greatest of ease – almost as second nature. They had the ability to speak with someone for several minutes and come away with a very accurate impression of that individual. Yet they were not psychoanalysts of psychologists. Professional ‘mind people’ may take years to gain understanding of a psyche.

How did these non-professionals do it? Were they born with this aptitude or did they develop this skill? Why did some of my most intelligent colleagues have the least developed people skills?

To get some answers I began to play a game that I still continue today. In a crowd – it doesn’t matter where – I would see individuals and guess what they were like without speaking to them. I would notice mannerisms, expressions, how they related to others around them and so on. As my skills sharpened I began to look at people skills in greater depth. Some keys that I found were:

  1. Interest. Those with highly developed people skills are interested in people.
  2. Curiosity. To develop people skills one has to pursue the human animal in its habitat. That means finding out why people perceive and act the way they do. This is easier than it sounds – I get bored thinking too much about myself.
  3. Objectivity. My travels taught me the ‘simplest’ person can come up with the greatest insight. We all take our perceptions and prejudices to the dance – those that have highly developed people skills recognize their weaknesses and check them at the door. (Mine are beautiful young women who feel the world owes them for being so beautiful and arrogant men that have nothing to be arrogant about.)
  4. Practice. Like any skill people skills can be sharpened. This means working and living with high human contact.
  5. Observant. The nuances of the human psyche are many. In a one-hour interview with thousands of spoken words there may be one or two key phrases. Key phrases and expressions often provide a window to the individual. Those that aren’t looking, don’t notice or are lazy do not pick up the subtleties.
  6. Transposition. Those that have great people skills can put themselves in others’ shoes. The ability to look through someone else’s eyes is pivotal. This is sometimes called understanding.
  7. General knowledge. Those with people skills know a lot about what humans do and experience. This enables them to relate to people on many different levels. This ability extends to being able to relate to many different types of people.
  8. Focus. This involves listening, watching and taking in all the cues we humans are capable of giving out.
  9. Awareness of differences and similarities. It seems the more we are alike the more different we are. Or vice-versa?
  10. Ambiguity is part of the human condition and those with people skills understand this. People are not all black and white. There are many shaded areas and to understand humans is to understand the shades of perception. Those with developed people skills do not attempt to ‘force’ people into well-defined categories.
  11. The Big Picture. To really understand a person we must look at their experiences over a lifetime. Cause and effect is not always easily discernible – the skilled people person looks at patterns over a lifetime.

It is generally assumed that people skills beyond courtesy and politeness cannot be taught. This is only partially true. People skills cannot be taught quickly. People skills must be honed over many, many years. Experience, focus and interest are three key dynamics. As more business processes like technology become standardized the prediction is that people skills will play an even larger role in tomorrow’s business environment. Those businesses that demonstrate a high level of people skills will have a definite competitive advantage.

-Jack Deal

Jack D. Deal is the owner of Deal Consulting. He can be reached at or 831-457-8806.