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Professionals are only as Effective as their People Skills!

The importance of people skills. Dilbert cartoon strip by Scott Adams.

People skills or technical skills?

As professionals in finance, engineering, medicine, law, or hospitality, we spend significant time learning and acquiring technical skills but relatively little on people skills. Technical skills are things like preparing and analyzing information, data management, research, applying professional judgment, design, and leveraging existing and emerging technologies, amongst other things. Foundational technical skills are a minimum requirement in all professions. However, they are not enough to become a competent professional in your chosen field.

What do I mean by this?

So much has changed with advancements in digitization, automation, and the lightning pace of change – accelerated in no small part by the pandemic. These forces have moved, for instance, the finance profession from back-office types of activities into front and centre business-facing strategic partner activities. Being a good technical accountant is a baseline. We need to be talented negotiators, influencers, business partners, and storytellers too! Each of these depends on people-based skills.

People skills are the skills we use to effectively communicate in different environments and situations. It’s about how we work, how we talk, and how we react to things around us. The Merriam-Webster dictionary describes them as “the ability to work with or talk to other people in an effective and friendly way”.

The natural question is: how are the changes around us driving the need for people skills?

The world of work is rapidly changing

The World Economic Forum report on The Future of Jobs shows concretely the need for developing people skills. The report cites the top employer-required skills and skill groups through to 2025. These include critical thinking and analysis as well as problem-solving, and skills in self-management such as active learning, resilience, stress tolerance, and flexibility.

WEF observes that automation and digitization could displace some 85 million jobs by 2025 and generate 97 million new roles better aligned to the new human, machine, and algorithms division of work. This naturally places greater emphasis on the human skills that differentiate us from “machines (including algorithms)”.

Of the top ten most important skills cited in the report, only twenty percent relate to technology. Whereas a whopping 80% are linked to people skills (i.e.: critical & analytical thinking, creativity, resilience, and emotional intelligence). What’s more, over 90% of business leaders see self-management as an increasingly important skill over the next few years.

So how do we respond to this emerging environment?

Prioritize People Skills Based on Need

Focusing on people skills, we evaluate the three important foundational people skills that are useful in any professional or personal toolkit, they are:

  1. Effective listening 
  2. Empathy
  3. Persuading others

Let’s look at the essential elements of each skill in turn. 

Effective listening

There are six attributes associated with listening effectively. Being present, feeling relaxed, keeping an open mind, visualizing what we are hearing, asking questions to clarify our understanding, putting ourselves in the shoes of the speaker, and being attentive to what is not being said.

All six of these small steps done together form the skill of effective listening. Perhaps Ralph G. Nichols captures listening best: “The most basic of all human needs is the need to understand and be understood. The best way to understand people is to listen to them.”


Empathy is the ability to recognize emotions in other people, in order to understand their perspective on a situation. Through this skill, we can resolve conflicts, build more productive teams, and improve our relationships with colleagues, customers, or anyone really. 

Empathy depends on four elements, and often begins by anticipating and then responding to the needs of other people, in particular:

  1. Put yourself in the shoes of others by adopting the right level of relatability and adapting your mindset
  2. Anticipate the needs of others by understanding their pain point, problem, or issue
  3. Respond to the needs of others by sharing the information they need – high quality and quickly
  4. Use the right question type and an effective communication style

You can obtain information using the 4Rs (respect, recognition, responsibility, and reassurance), using open questions (how, what, where, why, when) and of course, and applying the reasonable person test to check that the information you have is reasonable.

Next time you need to understand where the other person is coming from, keep the following things in mind: 

  • You never have a complete picture, no matter how well you know someone because each person deals with many events, factors, and circumstances which we’re unaware of.
  • Your view about a situation may be quite different and influenced by many things, including your mood right now!
  • When dealing with emotional or stressful events, you could well behave in a very different way than you expected you would.

Persuading Others

Persuasion is the action of moving someone to act through constructive argument on a belief, position, or course of action. In other words, it’s the ability to get what you want in life, and sometimes, get others to do what you want. Persuasion is a form of communication that depends on trust. Trust is essential if you want to become more effective when it comes to your ability to build relationships and influence or persuade people.

So there are five subtle strategies to persuade someone:

  1. Help shortcut the conversation by referencing others (this is social persuasion…it is designed to reduce decision fatigue)
  2. Keep it simple…make it easy to agree
  3. Control the conversation frame (social confidence – meaning our confidence leaves the other person starting to question themselves – use it wisely)
  4. Calling attention to something, then disregarding it (also known as humble bragging)
  5. Embracing the status quo

When it comes to persuasion, it is important to know when to change tactics. The fastest ways to do that are to slow the pace and tone, openly acknowledge the concerns others hold, and be honest and open in everything you do and speak. 

Final thoughts on the importance of people skills

So, the important conditions upon which to transition towards the digitized future we all face is less about more technical skills or hanging onto a role that will inevitably be automated, but rather to focus on building the people skills that differentiate us from technology. This will allow us to achieve an optimal workforce of humans and machines. It ensures that we develop the skills which are top of mind for many business leaders. And finally, it secures our place and value in a digitized future world of work.

Your turn

Sign in to the Community Member Area or comment below to share your views on the human skills you believe are most important for the future.

Give it a try!

Cartoon credit: Scott Adams, Dilbert

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