Interpersonal Awareness and Skills: My Introduction

All the love in the world will not bring us happiness or make
a relationship work. That requires skill, and this skill is quite attainable.
– David Richo

In the mid 1980’s, I began attending workshops and courses on interpersonal skills and group dynamics, and now teach many of the techniques I learned through those experiences. Undergirding all of the skills and dynamics is, of course, self-awareness. In other words, the quality of my interactions with others depends on the quality of the relationship I have with my self – how well I know my own emotional state, my own needs, my own values, opinions and preferences.

As I grew in my desire to interact effectively with others, I also realized that knowledge of self, however, is not enough. Being with others in nonviolent, empowering, compassionate, or creative ways requires skills. Unfortunately, in our Western society, we often do not value, talk about, or intentionally practice those skills. In fact, in the United States, where I live, we are suffering from a growing lack of civility, particularly in public discourse.

What follows are comments on a few of the techniques I learned over the years that have been very beneficial in my ability to engage effectively with others:

Assumptions and expectations

One of my early instructors offered advice that I have put into play many times. She said “Whenever you enter a new relationship, always spend time at the beginning clarifying expectations and assumptions.” I try to be sure to practice this advice whenever I begin to lead a new workshop group or a new personal relationship.

conversation3To follow this advice, at the start each person needs to articulate what he or she wants from and can give to the new relationship. Hopefully, that way, as the relationship develops, there are no surprises.  However, if a conflict arises at any point in the relationship, the previous conversation can be helpful in two ways:

1.) there already is established mutual ground to which to return in order to begin the delicate conversation about the new conflict;

2.) this mutual ground hopefully will allow an openness to the invitation to take stock of any assumptions or expectations not properly communicated which have caused the current conflict.

I offer a brief explanation of a helpful technique to begin such a conversation in the next section.

Conflict management

My learnings in the area of conflict management began with a lesson in using a non-violent communication technique, which I have since found quite helpful. The technique uses an opening statement, the purpose of which is to keep the focus for introducing the conversation on oneself, rather than the other person. Here is the phrase, with blanks for the details:

“When you do________, I feel___________because___________, so what I would like is ___________________.”

Using this statement means, though, that I must first have done the work of  self-reflection in order to get in touch with my feelings and, as much as possible, the reasons for the feelings I am experiencing – from my own perspective. Because of the way our brain’s function, all our feelings have a story, a history. It is likely that what I am feeling now connects with some event and feeling of the past.

Understanding the story of my own feelings also helps me to begin to use the phrase to name for another person the behavior that I experienced as hurtful or inappropriate without making any judgments.

However, one learning for me in initially experimenting with this phrase was recognizing that it attempts to address hurt feelings, and in so doing it is important that the other person is someone who has done work with his or her own feelings, is comfortable with talking about them, and can accept your feelings as valid. Not everyone is ready or capable of doing so. In that case, you have to let go of the expectation that the conversation will move forward to a positive resolution. However, in using the phrase, you at least you have done the work of identifying and expressing your own feelings and concerns.

Listening skills

There is more to good interpersonal relations than just learning how to speak my own experience in a non-violent way. The other half of good communication is learning how to listen well, sometimes referred to as “active listening.”  In this process, a simple skill I learned early on was to “reflect back” to the speaker what I think was said, using phrases like, “Let me check this out with you. I think what I heard you say is…”

I have found that using this phrase, or ones similar, has two major benefits. One, it confirms the details of the conversation. Secondly, it is amazing to see how using this simple “reflective” process can help someone really feel heard. I have found in my work with groups that often times people are frustrated by an individual in the group whom they experience as “saying the same thing over and over” – sometimes for as much as 40 years! I have found that such a person often does so because he or she feels as though she never really has been heard. The reflective listening technique can bring a sense of satisfaction and dignity that is often wonderful to observe in the demeanor of a person who feels for the first time that her words have been accepted and valued.

I have listed here only a few simple techniques which I learned early on for increasing interpersonal awareness and successful interaction. I have continued to grow in my awareness and skills in this area, and share more about that on the other posts in this section.

For the Archive of other posts within this current Click Here

To read the introduction to my next current Click Here

Richo, David. (2002). How to be an adult in relationships: The five keys to mindful loving. Boston, MA: Shambala.

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