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What are Interpersonal Skills?

What are Interpersonal Skills?

“Interpersonal skills” is a catch-all phrase often used to describe peoples’ capacity to interact with others successfully. In general, we can therefore say that interpersonal skills are people-related behaviors that we use every day to interact with individuals and groups. This means that we can have both good and poor interpersonal skills. If they are good, the person concerned is likely to be seen as an effective communicator, to listen well, possess high levels of empathy and work well under pressure. If they are poor, the person is likely to be seen to struggle with getting their message across, have understanding shortfalls, experience more conflict in relationships with others and feel stressed more often.

Although the above description seems pretty clear as statements of behavioral outputs (the results of good or poor interpersonal skills), it says little about the input behavior that is needed in order to become highly effective, or to avoid having poor interpersonal skills. We therefore have to dig a little deeper.

Howard Gardner theory

Over 20 years ago, the educationalist Howard Gardner developed a “multiple intelligences” adult learning model within which two of the seven intelligences he identified (the others being linguistic, logical-mathematical, musical, spatial and bodily-kinesthetic) were Intrapersonal and Interpersonal intelligence. He saw these as two-sides of the same coin or working together or being complimentary but as being quite discreet in their character. Let’s therefore look at these two intelligences as Gardner described them more closely:

Intrapersonal intelligence is the capacity to understand oneself, to appreciate one’s emotions, interests, fears and motivations or goals. This intelligence is more reflective and seeks to be in tune with inner feelings; looking for intuition, connections, patterns and wisdom. This is therefore more critical-thinking centered and is concerned with a person’s reflections on their own changing thoughts and emotions.

Interpersonal intelligence is the capacity to experience the intentions, interests, desires, fears, and motivations/goals of other people. This intelligence is therefore much more openly interactive, seeking personal connections and discussions with others as a prime tool to appreciate what one person or more may be communicating. This is therefore more of an ability to have interest in and/or empathy for other people’s views.

As we can see from these very different characterizations, to have well-developed or highly effective “interpersonal skills” in the general way that the term is now mainly used, we ideally need both of these intelligences. Similarly, a low-level of both of these intelligences is likely to lead to poor interpersonal skills. But what happens if one or another of these intelligences is weak and the other is strong? To illustrate this, the four quadrant grid below may be a useful guide:

2. High Intrapersonal Intelligence and Low Interpersonal Intelligence 3. Low Intrapersonal Intelligence and High Interpersonal Intelligence
  • Quiet and reflective
  • Listens well but may not convey it
  • May end up in unsought disagreements/conflicts
  • May not speak up or be assertive on thoughts
  • Often keeps important contributions to him/herself
  • May not promote own agenda or contributions
  • Calm on the surface but not underneath
  • Volatile in communication mood and style
  • Can listen poorly and be potentially insensitive
  • Can be highly and vocally empathetic with people
  • Often self-centeredly lively and entertaining
  • Can become over-familiar very quickly
1. Low Intrapersonal Intelligence and Low Interpersonal Intelligence 4. High Intrapersonal Intelligence and High Interpersonal Intelligence
  • Emotive and unable to explain why
  • Self-absorbed and distracted
  • Often personally stressed and pressured
  • Can be a crass or over-frank communicator
  • Scattered and even illogical thinker
  • Can be defensive and/or aggressive in communication
  • In touch with own emotions/feelings
  • Listens attentively (summarizing/paraphrasing well)
  • Calm, centered and even charismatic
  • Effective but sensitive critical thinker
  • Versatile communicator (one to one and group)
  • Enthuses/motivates people through language

Although this grid is clearly an over-simplification, needing more behavioral descriptors in each quadrant and to recognize that no one individual would reside “permanently” in any one quadrant for instance, it does help to see what behavioral inputs are needed to become more effective on a somewhat richer basis. For example, a person who could be described as mainly operating in box 1 needs to work on each of the descriptive bullets listed which draw on both the intrapersonal and interpersonal side of the equation, whereas an individual in box 2 and 3 would only need to work on a few behaviors on one side of the equation. The aspiration of course is to operate mainly in box 4 as much as we can.

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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 OptimalJon@gmail.com

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3 Comments

  1. HarsitMay 23, 2013 at 10:58 am

    Interpersonal skills are used in an organization for a variety of reasons. Interpersonal skills are the skills that we use when we interact with other people. Good interpersonal skills help an organization remain strong by enabling better communication and understanding between members. Read more on
    http://communicationintheworkplace.com.au/

    • Dr. Jon WarnerJune 3, 2013 at 3:33 pmAuthor

      Thanks for the link Harsit.

  2. AnonFebruary 9, 2016 at 1:10 pm

    So “skills” is in action, while “intelligence” is something like in process to convert it into action?
    I’m burning out with my research
    Okay.. So it’s like, ‘intelligence’ should be improved than the skills right?

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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