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Interpersonal Communication Skills

January 4, 2013 by Dr. Jon Warner in Communication, Listening

Interpersonal Communication Skills

The well-known management author Stephen Covey suggested that the first principle or what he called “habit” to adopt in becoming highly effective in general is to:

“Seek first to understand, then to be understood”.

This principle suggests that it is how we read and understand the other party in the communication that is most critical in the communication process and is a key foundation to building a strong and productive relationship. In other words, good communication requires careful and attentive listening – before, during and after sending each message.

Listening and talking (or receiving and sending) are the two core skills we use when we communicate. But when we think of interpersonal communication skills we tend to think most about the “sending/ speaking” mode (and to forget about the receiving or listening mode). Yet, on average, 40-50% of our communication activity is listening (with a further 30-40% spent watching and not talking very much at all!).

Sadly, as yet another complication, as a general rule we remember only about half of what is said to us in any exchange. And, within eight hours we’ve forgotten another half of the half we originally recalled! It’s just “in one ear and out the other” for most of us.

So how do we listen more effectively?

Listening appears to be a passive activity, rather than an active or intentional behavioral skill, so it tends to be given far less attention than, say, speaking, writing, or reading. But listening is crucial to feedback, open systems, clarifying, rapport building – whether one-to-one or in small groups or even large organizations. It’s therefore crucial to understanding the person or group with whom we are trying to communicate (and therefore just as crucial to interpersonal communication skills). In presentation training in particular one of the golden rules is to “know your audience” and it’s a maxim that holds true for all communication exchanges, whether the audience is large or small.

Interestingly, research suggests that the higher or more responsible our positions become in an organization, the more we tend to describe what we do for most of the working day as “communication”. Furthermore, the more responsible our role the more we identify “listening” as a major part of our communication activity. This makes sense, because the greater our responsibility, the greater need we have to gather information (learn) before we communicate decisions, especially if we want them to be informed, accurate and useful decisions.

A ten-year study of listening in workplaces (published in 2005) found two key behaviors that were considered to be most important to overall listening effectiveness. These were:

  1. Confirming the message sent (or recognizing that the goal or outcome of the communication has worked properly)
  2. Affirming the relationship between speaker and listener (or adopting the most appropriate levels of empathy and warmth for the type of message or conversation to occur)

So in these two key behaviors we can see the need for both task (the goal or the outcome of the exchange to be clear) and relationship skills (the need for sender and receiver to interpersonally connect).

Related research on listening in a multitude of different organizational environments found that listening is typically affected by:

  • time pressures
  • previous experiences
  • relationships,
  • behavior (and that “speakers form impressions of listeners’ motivations … objectivity … comprehension … interest level … and capacity for empathy”).

That is, our experience of listening to a particular message will be affected by not only the obvious behaviors the listener demonstrates in that instance, but also by our previous experiences (“Joe never pays attention to me” / “If Sue’s phone rings she’ll answer it and pretend she’s still listening to me”). Hence we will use our past perceptions as a guide to how we listen to an individual and then update these perceptions based upon the new information that we pick up or receive.

So in summary we can say that to listen well, or to “seek first to understand” as Covey suggests, we must be highly mindful of all these factors and concentrate more of the other person and what he or she is saying than on what we should be saying next. Put another way we should pay more attention to being a good receiver than a good sender. And if we can do this well, our interpersonal communication skills will progressively be perceived to be considerably better by those people around us.

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About Dr. Jon Warner

Dr. Jon Warner is a prolific author, management consultant and executive coach with over 25 years experience. He has an MBA and a PhD in Organizational Psychology. Jon can be reached at

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About the Editor and Primary Author

Jon Warner

Jon Warner is an executive coach and management consultant and in the past has been a CEO in three very different companies. Read more

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