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Improving Your Interpersonal Skills

by Robert W. Bly, Director

The Center for Technical Communication


Key words and phrases:

interpersonal skills



conflict resolution




Bob Bly


22 E. Quackenbush Avenue

Dumont, NJ 07628

(201) 385-1220

April 30, 1998, updated 5-15-98

Improving Your Interpersonal Skills

by Robert W. Bly


On the first day of my first job, I noticed that engineers wore yellow I.D. badges while marketing and sales people wore white I.D. badges. My boss quickly educated me about the adversarial relationship in the company between technical and nontechnical employees.

 “Engineers, who wear yellow badges, refer to marketing and salespeople as ‘white-badge puke,’” Terry explained. “Sales and marketing people, who wear white badges, refer to engineers as ‘yellow-badge a--holes.’”

I soon learned two things:

·        He wasn’t kidding. Employees used these terms every day.

·        Although it was done primarily in fun, the name-calling had in fact originated logically from the sometimes adversarial relationship between those who         

made the product and those who sold it.


Since engineering school, you and I have known we’re a slightly different breed than the “liberal arts types” -- fellow students we simultaneously looked down on for the simplicity of their studies and envied for the same reason.

But as we entered industry, those liberal arts types became our colleagues, our customers, and sometimes, our senior management. To succeed in the corporate world, then, technical types have to learn to live with -- even serve -- nontechies. This article gives tips to help you get along with -- and maybe even learn to like -- people, whether the same as us or different.


The first step is to recognize that there are differences between techies and nontechies. We’re built differently. But just as we can’t control who we are, they can’t control who they are. Actually, it’s a lucky thing customers rely on us for our technical expertise. Diversity keeps you employed: If everyone in the world possessed all of your aptitudes and skills, you’d be out of a job.

Nontechies are results-oriented, interested in the ends rather than the means, the bottom line rather than the process. They lack interest in the details, preferring to focus on the “big picture.” Most techies simply want to resolve problems; engineers enjoy actually working on problems.

There’s an old joke about a lawyer and an engineer who are to be executed. When the guillotine sticks during the lawyer’s execution, he says, “You can’t do this again; it would be double jeopardy” ... and goes free. The engineer is next. When again the guillotine sticks, he turns his head, looks up at the mechanism, and tells the executioner, “I think I see the problem....”

The other major difference is many nontechies are “people persons” while most techies are not. As one software engineer explains, “I like to sit alone at my workstation and write code; I don’t like to work with people. That’s why I became a software engineer in the first place.”

Table I summarizes key differences between techies and nontechies.

Table I. Personality Comparison, Techies vs. Nontechies 



·        Global thinkers

·        Detailed-oriented

·        Only see end result

·        See path to end result

·        Customer-driven

·        Technology-driven

·        Right-brained (love English, history)

·        Left-brained (love math and science)

·        A “people person”

·        Introverted, not people-oriented; only comfortable with other “techies”





We all know people with great “people skills,” and sometimes wonder, “How do they do it?”

It’s simply a matter of knowing the basics of how to deal with other people, and then making a conscious effort to put those basics into practice. Here are seven habits of people whom others view as having great interpersonal skills.

1.      They present their best selves to the public. Your moods change, but your customer -- external or internal -- doesn’t care. Make a conscious effort to be your most positive, enthusiastic, helpful self, especially when that’s not how you feel. If you need to vent, do it in private.

2.      They answer phone calls promptly. Few things annoy people more than not having their phone calls returned. Get back to people within 2 hours. If you can’t, have your voice mail guide them to others who can help in your place. If you’re really uncomfortable with someone and don’t want to talk with them on the phone, answer their query through a fax or e-mail. Or, call when you know they won’t be there and leave the information on their voice mail.

3.      They call people by their names and ask questions about their lives. Take the time to learn and use everyone’s name, especially secretaries. Most people don’t. You don’t have to glad-hand, but if you see a child’s picture on someone’s desk, they’d probably appreciate your asking, “How old is your daughter?” Establishing some common bond makes the other person more receptive to working with you.

4.      They meet people halfway. Sometimes we’re right and the other person is wrong, but many techies I observe seem to enjoy going out of their way to rub it in the other person’s face. Implement the correct technical solution without making the other person feel stupid or ignorant, e.g., “That’s a good idea, but given the process variables, here’s another approach that would avoid contamination problems downstream....”

5.      They listen carefully before speaking. A sure sign you are not listening to the other person is that you can’t wait to say what you want to say, and as soon as the other person pauses, you jump in and start talking. Even if you think you know the answer, listen to the other person. Their knowledge and grasp of the situation may surprise you. If not, listening shows you considered their opinion and didn’t just steamroll over them.

6.      They keep eye contact. When you’re talking with someone, look them in the eye at points in the conversation. If you’re explaining something while typing on a keyboard, take your eyes away from the screen now and then to look and talk directly at the other person. After all, it’s a PC, not a car; you won’t crash if you take your eyes off the road.

7.      They are not afraid to admit when they are wrong. Techies are afraid that nontechies will think they are incompetent if they admit to being wrong. The opposite is true. Andrew Lanyi, a stock market expert, explains, “The more you are willing to admit that you are not a guru, the more credibility you gain.” No one knows everything, and everybody knows people make mistakes. If you refuse to admit mistakes or pretend to know everything, people won’t trust you when you are right and do know the answer.


Poor communication is another barrier to working effectively with others. For techies, communicating with nontechies is particularly problematic and frustrating.

But it doesn’t have to be. Realize you know the technology and jargon -- and they may not. Why should their lack of technical knowledge annoy you? Again, if they knew every technical detail, we might not have a job.

Here are steps you can take to get your message across so everyone understands, and neither you nor them is frustrated by the communication process:

     1. Listen and make sure you understand. Listening is a skill that requires your full attention. Don’t have a conversation while you’re checking your e-mail or searching Web sites. Do one thing at a time and you will do each thing well.

     2. Prove you understand -- feed it back to them.  When the other person asks a question or makes a statement, repeat it back to them in your own words, and ask whether that’s what they meant. Often what they said -- or what you heard -- is not exactly what they were trying to get across ... and the two of you need to try again.

     3. Never underestimate the (technical) intelligence of the average user.  Nontechies lack technical background, data, and aptitude -- not I.Q. Explain technical concepts in plain, simple language. Avoid jargon, or at least define technical terms before using them. A “T1 circuit” may confuse your boss, but everyone understands the concept of a “telephone line.”

     4. Talk to users at their level, not yours. In addition to keeping things simple, focus on what’s important to the other person, which is not necessarily what is important to you. For example, a graphic designer I know goes into elaborate explanations of kerning and fonts when all I want to know is whether to make the headline bigger.

     5. Make sure they get it. Nontechies often don’t ask questions for fear of being perceived as stupid. Encourage the listener to stop you and ask questions if they don’t understand. Ask them questions so you know whether they got it. If not, find out what they don’t understand. Then make it clear to them.

     6. Don’t assume. The old joke goes, “When you assume, you make an a-- of u and me. If you want someone to run a simulation on Windows 95, for example, make sure they have Windows 95 installed on their PC and know how to use it.

     7. Don’t let your annoyance and impatience show. Sure, it can be frustrating explaining technical topics to people who don’t have the background. But if you act annoyed, lose your patience, or become arrogant, your listener will be turned off -- and you’ll make an enemy instead of an ally.

     8. Budget communications time into the schedule. Part of the frustration techies feel explaining technical topics to nontechies is the time it takes, which they could be spending on their “real” work. The solution is to accept that communication is a mandatory requirement on every project, and budget communications time into your schedule accordingly.

     9. Use the 80/20 rule. The most effective communicators spend 80% of their time listening and only 20% talking. Many of us like to lecture, pontificate, or explain details of no interest to the other person. Instead, let the other person tell you what they need and want, then give it to them.

     10. Make a friend. If there is chemistry or camaraderie between you and the other person, let it flow and grow naturally. You shouldn’t force a connection where there is none, and you don’t have to be a social butterfly when you’re not. But as a rule, people prefer to deal with people they like. So make it easy for the other person to like you. Or at least don’t give them reasons to dislike you.




·        Prefer positive to negative statements. Instead of “George didn’t finish coding the system,” say “George got 95% of the coding done.” Instead of saying something is bad, say it’s good but could be made even better. Instead of saying someone “failed” to do something, just say he didn’t do it.

·        Don’t speak when you’re angry. Cool off. Don’t feel you have to answer a criticism or complaint on the spot. Instead, say “Let me give it some thought and get back to you ... is tomorrow morning good?” This prevents you from saying things you’ll regret later or making snap decisions.

·        Don’t use value judgments to make colleagues feel bad about past mistakes. Avoid the implication that errors in judgment, which are temporary and one-time, are due to character and intelligence flaws. Don’t say “that was stupid”; instead say “We can’t ever let that happen again.” Focus on preventing future repetitions of the mistake rather than assigning blame.

·        Be courteous, but don’t overdo humility. Be pleasant and personable, but not fawning. Treat other people with respect, and in return, insist they do the same with you. If a person is clearly technology phobic, don’t falsely flatter them with malarkey about how quickly they’re catching on ... unless they really are.

·        Empathize before stating an opinion. Don’t seek out argument; argue only when necessary. And make the conversation collaborative rather than adversarial. Say “I understand” when the other person gives his or her opinion. “I understand” doesn’t mean you agree; it means you heard what they said and considered it in forming your own opinion, which you’re now going to present.

·        Apologize completely. Apologies should be unconditional -- “I was wrong,” not “I know I did X but that’s because you did Y.” Don’t try to bring third parties or external factors into the equation. The bottom line is: It was your responsibility. Admit your mistakes and move on.


The good news is, even though you may indeed be a rocket scientist, developing your interpersonal skills isn’t rocket science. It’s easy. Follow these tips and your customers, colleagues, and management will say of you: “Not only technically sharp, but really easy to work with.” No compliment can ensure your success better.



For further reading:

Coping With Difficult Bosses. Robert Bramson, Fireside Books, 1994.


Fat-Free Meetings. Burt Albert. Peterson’s,  Princeton, NJ, 1996.


How To Manage Conflict. Career Press, Hawthorne, NJ, 1993


Listen Up! Jim Dugger, AMI Publishing, 1995.


Managing Conflict at Work. Jim Murphy, AMI Publishing, 1994.


The Dilbert Principle. Scott Adams, HarperBusiness, New York City, 1997


Why Didn’t You Say That In The First Place? Richard Heyman. Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, 1994.




About the author:

Bob Bly is the director of the Center for Technical Communication (phone 201-385-1220; fax 201-385-1138; e-mail, a Dumont, NJ-based consulting firm that helps engineers, managers, and other corporate employees improve their communication and interpersonal skills. Bob has presented seminars for numerous clients including Foxboro, IBM, Cardiac Pacemakers, Metrum Instrumentation, Medical Economics, U.S. Army,  Arco Chemical, and Thoroughbred Software. He has written more than 100 articles and 35 books including The Ultimate Unauthorized Star Trek Quiz Book (HarperCollins) and The Elements of Technical Writing  (Macmillan).