A definition from Wiktionary:

Playing well with others: “To habitually demonstrate interpersonal skills by engaging agreeably in social or work activities“

Clients who work with me will tell you that I place great emphasis on cultivating relationships and meaningful (as opposed to casual) connections. It is said that 80% of jobs come from connections (as opposed to posted positions), and obviously advancement within an organization depends to a great degree on gaining the trust and respect of key decision makers and colleagues, not just on their assessment of the quality of your work, as important as that may be. So it’s hard to overemphasize the importance of strong interpersonal skills.

Whether in such large and often highly bureaucratic organizations like the World Bank, IBM, or the Department of Defense, or in small, nimble startups, building quality relationships is one of the most fundamental building blocks of career success.

Of course some people are blessed with a high degree of “emotional intelligence.” Psychology Today defines emotional intelligence as “the ability to identify and manage your own emotions and the emotions of others.” It is generally said to include three skills: 1) emotional awareness; 2) the ability to… apply (emotions) to tasks like thinking and problem solving; and 3) the ability to manage emotions, which includes regulating your own emotions and cheering up or calming down other people.

Let’s look at these three components individually.

“Emotional awareness” requires you to be self-reflective, acting and reacting less automatically and more thoughtfully. Great, but how can you actually put this into practice? First, step outside yourself and examine HOW you’re feeling at given moments, and WHY (to the degree you can identify the source(s). This isn’t easy; you’ll want to practice on relatively benign emotions to build up your ability to be your own “emotional detective.” So, for example, you might start with noticing being annoyed at something (e.g. waiting on a slow checkout line in a supermarket or driving behind someone who’s going way under the speed limit).

“Applying emotions to thinking and problem solving” demands that you motivate yourself to think clearly and deeply about issues you are tasked to resolve. This too is a skill that can be developed. For some valuable tips on how to train yourself to be better in this area, please read my blog post: http://jimwein09.squarespace.com/blog/2015/2/28/i-dont-feel-like-it-taking-action-when-youre-not-in-the-mood.html

“The ability to manage emotions, which includes regulating your own emotions and cheering up or calming down other people” will be improved by attending to numbers 1 and 2 above, but requires more. As it relates to self-regulation, it is essential that, once you’ve recognized that you’re in the grips of an emotion, you step back and ask yourself if, and how, that emotion might be serving, or not serving, you in a given situation. I think you’ll generally conclude that you are NOT being served, and that you’d be better off reacting in a more measured, and less emotional, way. Then, of course, you’ll need to call on the self-discipline to calm the emotional (over)reaction.

But it’s the second part of this component, “cheering up or calming down other people” that most directly relates to the ability to cultivate, build, or strengthen relationships that will be important for your career success (and, in fact, to life success in general). Cheering up or calming down other people, and more broadly getting people to like and respect you, requires empathy – the ability to put yourself in the other person’s shoes and see situations from their perspective. Perhaps a co-worker has been uncooperative. Perhaps a boss is micromanaging. Perhaps a subordinate is disrespectful. Of course you’re going to have a negative emotional reaction to these situations. But the key to gaining mastery over them is to investigate WHY these other people are acting the way they are.

Is the uncooperative co-worker threatened by you, fearful of being outshone? Is the micromanaging boss insecure about your reliability? Is the disrespectful subordinate being triggered by the way you interact with him/her?*

An indispensable quality in handling these situations is CURIOSITY – the capacity to set aside your certainty about things and to question and probe assumptions. To quote Stephen Covey’s fifth Habit of Highly Effective People, “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” When people in your life realize you’re doing your best to come from a sympathetic, understanding place, the path to a good relationship will be a much smoother one.

*I don’t mean to suggest that there are never people who are “out to get you.” Sometimes intense dislikes are triggered by one’s behavior, or even appearance. But ascribing nefarious intentions to co-workers with whom you conflict may often be misleading, and these relationships can sometimes be repaired with less effort than you might imagine.

N.B. – Another blog post that can illuminate ways to build better relationships is one I wrote a few years back: