ATD Blog

Teaching People Skills

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

People skills: Attentive listing, observing, and reading; perceiving and empathizing; effective and appropriate use of words, tone, expressions and gestures (verbal, written, and otherwise); one-on-one and in groups; in-person and remotely.

The crux of people skills is paying close attention to the signals of those with whom you are interacting, without getting distracted, and then responding to those signals effectively and appropriately. But today’s young workers—the second wave Millennials—seem to be more self-focused. Plus they are often distracted. What’s more, they are so unaccustomed to engaging in person or on the telephone that their powers of perception are typically not as well developed. It’s little wonder that they are not very good at reading people, especially in person and on the phone.

Think of it this way: Have you ever had a big misunderstanding (or fight) with someone via text messaging? They happen partly because words alone, especially informal staccato messages, are very easy to misinterpret. That’s because tone, expressions, and gestures are a very big part of how human beings communicate. So much meaning is lost or misconstrued in texts. Now throw in the social media dimension, in which communication is an interactive performance among peers (or not even peers but the virtual personas of peers). This is the information environment where young employees are honing their interpersonal communication practices. Even their in-person interactions—especially with their peers—are almost always underwritten and mediated by their social media network relationships.


Building relationships in the relatively formal high-stakes real world of the workplace is a brand new challenge for employees. School is probably their closest analogue. But in school, employees have been largely spoon-fed the structure and substance of their important formal communication. In the workplace, that is less likely to happen.


Yes, there is structure in most workplaces. Nonetheless a shocking amount of the important communication in most workplaces is largely ad hoc, hit and miss. There is a lot of “touching base” and “call me if you need me” messages, as well as mediocre meetings and long multi-recipient email chains. But there is usually way too little regular structured communication. This is one reason why employees don’t treat interpersonal communication in the workplace with greater formality. Not surprisingly, employees often fail to realize that the burden is on them to ensure their interpersonal communication at work is more structured and substantive.

Here’s the good news: Like any other habits, communication habits can be changed. But doing so is not easy.

If you are the manager, you should take on more of the burden for making sure that your communication with employees (and all of your employees for that matter) is high structure and high substance. Engage every single employee in a regularly scheduled structured one-on-one dialogue. These one-on-one meetings will give employees the chance to practice interacting in a more professional manner, at least with you. As you fine-tune your ongoing dialogue with each employee, they will become accustomed to your one-on-ones. Over time, you will help them learn to prepare better agendas for your meetings, becoming more organized, clear, and focused.

About the Author

Bruce Tulgan is a bestselling author and the founder and CEO of RainmakerThinking, a management research and training firm. He is the author of numerous books, including It’s Okay to Be the Boss; Not Everyone Gets a Trophy; and The 27 Challenges Managers Face. His newest book, The Art of Being Indispensable at Work, is due for release in the summer of 2020 from Harvard Business Review Press. You can follow Bruce on Twitter @BruceTulgan or visit his website at

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