How to master communication in problem solving

May 11, 2023 The path from problem to solution is not linear. In fast-moving, complex times, decision-makers can’t effectively act alone when it comes to solving complicated workplace problems; diverse perspectives and rigorous debate are crucial to determining the best steps to take. What’s missing in many companies is the use of “contributory dissent,” or the capabilities required to engage in healthy if divergent discussions about critical business problems, write Ben Fletcher , Chris Hartley , Rupert Hoskin , and Dana Maor  in a recent article . Contributory dissent allows individuals and groups to air their differences in a way that moves the discussion toward a positive outcome and doesn’t undermine leadership or group cohesion. Check out these insights to learn how to establish cultures and structures where individuals and teams feel free to bring innovative—and often better—alternative solutions to the table, and dive into the best ways to master communication in problem solving.

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What Are Interpersonal Skills?

problem solving and interpersonal communication

Interpersonal skills are the behaviors people demonstrate when effectively interacting with others . Commonly referred to as “people skills,” these communication tactics can be signaled verbally and non-verbally in both one-on-one and group dynamics. Highly transferable across industries, interpersonal skills are a part of a professional’s soft skill arsenal that builds and determines the nature of professional relationships.

Interpersonal skills come in handy when handling conflict, collaborating within a team or just generally relating to your coworkers throughout your career . While some are innate traits, others are learned over time and can be further developed to strategically navigate social settings.

Interpersonal skills are the traits people use to communicate and interact with others. They are also known as “people skills” or “soft skills.”

“Being a genius coder or a killer salesperson doesn’t mean much if you can’t get along with others,” Melani Gordon, a partner at executive coaching and culture development firm Evolution , told Built In. “Interpersonal skills help you build that trust, turning you into not just someone people have to work with, but someone they want to work with.”

Sometimes referred to as ‘people skills’ or ‘social skills,’ interpersonal skills don’t just involve effectively communicating with others, but also reading others’ social cues and responding accordingly. 

Although interpersonal skills depend on one’s personality traits and communication style , they can also be developed through past experiences and repetition. As a result, employees can participate in more interactions to improve their interpersonal skills, which range from effective communication to active listening. 

13 Examples of Interpersonal Skills

While there is no official list of interpersonal skills to turn to, below are some office-friendly attributes that are sure to enhance anyone’s employability.  

1. Communication

Nearly every aspect of business relies on communication — whether spoken or written. It should be clear, concise and consistent. Even nonverbal cues count as communication, especially in the age of remote work and video meetings.

2. Active Listening

Active listening is when someone reflects upon and responds to — rather than reacts to — what another person says. As opposed to passive listening, active listening requires concentration, critical thinking, comprehension and a bit of demonstration. Without this interpersonal skill, it’s entirely possible to have two separate conversations at once, without arriving upon a mutual understanding.

Being in tune with what other people are thinking — and interpreting why they may be behaving a certain way — is the internal personal skill of empathy. It takes time to acquire. Achieving this level of insight involves listening, asking questions, recognizing feelings, avoiding judgment and sharing perspectives to authentically “walk in someone else’s shoes.”

4. Emotional Intelligence

Whether as an employee or leader of a company, having a clear understanding of your own emotions , motivations, triggers and behaviors is the first step in determining how to respond in any given scenario. The ability to recognize and regulate one’s own standings of emotional and social intelligence better informs where their strengths or weaknesses lay, and therefore what to embrace and where the work begins.

5. Positive Attitude

If an employee is capable of seeing the good in any situation, they are more equipped to stick it out when expectations fall short. Rather than complain or tally all that went wrong, these solution-oriented individuals are often the first in the room to switch on, ready to pivot. They have a certain energizing quality that rubs off, where just a greeting or brief catch-up conversation can leave coworkers feeling more capable of tackling the day.

6. Negotiation And Persuasion

Whether negotiating a deal or trying to persuade an audience, these processes involve articulating your thoughts in alignment with their needs while “selling it” altogether. Luckily, Aristotle determined the three pillars of persuasive speaking 2,300 years ago — ethos, pathos and logos — which suggests building a logical argument that appeals to an audience’s character and emotions.

7. Conflict Mediation And Resolution

Having a knack for designing win-win solutions and finding common ground translates well in a work environment. Listening to all of the facts, remaining calm and making sure people feel heard play a key role in resolving conflict . The pathway to peaceful resolution is to land on a compromise without either party feeling like they’re giving up anything.

8. Problem Solving

Problem solving begins with being able to identify a problem, then brainstorming a solution. From there, it’s a matter of analyzing the possibilities and implementing which works best, whether it’s project-specific or a company-wide matter. Strong problem solving can inspire better strategy and time management, but also instill confidence and build motivation.

9. Leadership

An employee with leadership qualities knows how to leverage the best out of their team. They listen to all sides before making a decision while motivating and inspiring others to work toward a shared goal — especially when the going gets tough.

10. Resilience

Having the ability to cope with adversity and pivot as the plot changes will serve someone well, especially in the workplace. When someone can maintain their own psychological well-being amid a high degree of stress, it communicates that they do not need things to go as planned in order to excel in their job. These individuals are dependable, and can roll with the punches.

11. Creativity

Problem solving, writing, analytical or critical thinking , communication and open-mindedness are all creative attributes fit for the workplace. Creative thinkers approach tired tasks in imaginative new ways, generating original ideas that can lead to innovative solutions.

Cracking a (well-timed, work-appropriate) joke can create a positive atmosphere even when handling difficult tasks, like high-stakes negotiations, presenting a sales pitch or delivering a down-market report. Humor diffuses tension, boosts creativity and increases one’s likeability.

Leaders with a sense of humor are seen as 27 percent more motivating and admired than those who don’t joke around. Their teams are 15 percent more engaged, and twice as likely to solve a creativity challenge — translating into higher productivity.

13. Small Talk 

The ability to have informal, polite discourse about light, non-work-related topics helps establish rapport with colleagues . Small talk eliminates the need for stale, overdone conversation starters.

“Have you ever been in one of those company mixers where it feels more like a middle-school dance? Nobody’s mingling,” Gordon said. “Now, a person with killer interpersonal skills walks in and suddenly, the energy shifts — conversations spark, people laugh and ideas start flowing. That’s interpersonal skills in action.”

Related Reading How Interpersonal Skills Help You Be a Stronger Tech Player

Benefits of Interpersonal Skills

A solid set of interpersonal skills makes for a more harmonious — and more efficient — workplace. As employees become better colleagues and leaders become more effective at the helm, a positive and productive team culture is often a byproduct.

“Technical skills are important, but they aren’t the only skill type we should be focused on,” Koma Gandy, vice president of leadership and business at corporate-education platform Skillsoft , told Built In. “Success depends on a workforce that can understand, practice and apply both [technical and soft] sets of skills.”

Below are some of the benefits of interpersonal skills.  

1. Stronger Relationships

By definition, interpersonal skills are how we relate to others. It’s how we build trust , collect understanding and learn how people prefer to communicate. Great interpersonal skills are the bread and butter to effortlessly building deeper connections with your coworkers , resulting in a tighter team and pleasant work environment.

2. Higher Morale

Flexing your interpersonal skills to create a sense of understanding, belonging and recognition — as well as a space capable of facilitating change — boosts office morale and contributes to a culture of camaraderie.

3. Better Business

For every customer won, there’s a master of interpersonal skills at work. Anticipating the needs of a client is impossible without actively listening , exercising empathy, solid communication, patience and perhaps a sprinkle of witty banter.

4. Increased Productivity And Collaboration 

Interpersonal skills are the lubricant of a well-oiled organizational machine — with good communication, there are fewer misunderstandings and mistakes. According to research conducted by team messaging app Pumble, 86 percent of employees and executives cite insufficient collaboration and communication as the main causes of workplace failures. But when communicating effectively , a team’s productivity may increase by as much as 25 percent.

5. More Problem Solving

When a team takes the time to understand one another, they are better equipped to find a solution that works for most everyone involved. This leads to more compassionate office dynamics where “problems” become team-building opportunities.

6. Supportive Work Environment

When employees walk into a work environment that is more concerned with empowering them rather than putting them in their place, it’s immediately felt. Interpersonal skills can help leaders lighten their team’s workload and alleviate work-related stress by just setting the right tone. Keep the doors open, check in, pay credit where credit is due and listen before you lead.

7. Opportunities For Promotions

Office politics are a factor whether we want to admit it or not. When vying for a position, promotion or project, interpersonal skills can get you the job — even if you’re not as technically qualified as other candidates.

“[Office politics] is a game everyone says they don’t want to play, but guess what, you’re already a player,” Gordon said. “Interpersonal skills are your cheat code to navigate this tricky terrain without selling your soul to the corporate devil.”

Related Reading Upskilling: What It Is and Why It’s Important

Why Are Interpersonal Skills Important?

According to the World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs report , eight of the top 10 core skills required of workers today are interpersonal skills. Surveyed companies identified soft skills like analytical thinking, creativity, empathy, motivation and leadership as integral qualities to a workforce that works.

“To be effective in your workplace and career, it’s critically important to manage yourself, manage your network and manage your team — in that precise order,” Gandy said. “Interpersonal skills help us identify and navigate our emotions as we become more self-aware. When we are equipped with these skills, we make better leaders and colleagues to one another and help drive real business success.”

How to Improve Interpersonal Skills

1. get to know yourself.

To start, it’s important to understand your own natural behaviors when interacting with others. Are you more chatty and extroverted? Or do you struggle with attention, deflecting the conversation while mentally mapping out an escape plan?

Psychologist Leslie Dobson, who specializes in mental health in both individual and group therapy settings, said that this can be done with a simple self-assessment . By asking yourself how assertive you feel you are at work, and the manner in which you assert yourself — aggressively, passively, or passive-aggressively — can be a great exercise in self-awareness.

To put it to the test, try videotaping yourself. This can be in pretend conversations or more naturally, while out with friends, Dobson recommended. Despite an inevitable aspect of ‘cringe’ that comes with this tried-and-true exercise, it offers instant, indisputable feedback from a third-person perspective that provides a better understanding of your own habits.

“In the tech world people tend to be a little more introverted,” Dobson said, noting that, when learning new techniques and trying out different approaches to communication, these individuals may feel like they’re being aggressive.

As you reflect, you may notice that you have a tendency to overshare and could probably pull back on personal anecdotes, or you may find yourself blurring into the background a bit, and could use it as a green flag to increase your level of participation in a group setting. 

2. Pay Attention to Your Body Language

Small things, such as walking tall, shaking hands, holding eye contact and keeping an even, steady tone, can add up, and ultimately contribute to creating a more relatable presence in the workplace. Start by taking a proper posture and relaxing your shoulders. Keep your arms uncrossed and slightly lean in when others are talking to you. Study what others are doing, and try out what feels most natural to you.

“If we can name our interpersonal skills — both what we have and what we’re lacking — then we can externalize them and operationalize them,” Dobson said.

3. Enroll in Career Development Programs

For those seeking a more formal course correction, enrolling in career development classes may be the way to go. Any workshops that specifically focus on public speaking, leadership or networking in their curriculum are worth looking into, Dobson said, as well as supportive therapy groups such as social skills training .

4. Stay Curious

And it doesn’t stop there — as Gandy noted, developing professional-grade interpersonal skills is not a “set it and forget it” type of endeavor. Sharpening relational techniques is a life-long practice that can help build your career and enrich your life.

At Skillsoft, Gandy assists business leaders in identifying skill gaps in their teams via objective assessments. The results are then used to inform curated programs , with transferable credentials, that are in alignment with the needs of the organization.

“[Building interpersonal skills] is a consistent and constant journey of … continuous learning and growth,” Gandy said.

Related Reading Tech Hiring Madness! The ‘Elite 8’ Skills to Look for in Recruiting.

How to Use Interpersonal Skills at Work

It’s one thing to know about interpersonal techniques and their benefits. It’s another to actually apply them to your daily routine. The following includes a few hacks to work in during your next series of workplace interactions.  

1. Stay Positive

Try to cultivate a positive mental attitude at work. This will allow you to become both a part of and a contributor to a more harmonious work culture. While it may be a matter of ‘fake it until you make it,’ looking for the good in any given scenario — especially stressful ones — reflects positively on you as an employee and coworker.

2. Control Your Emotions

Conduct yourself professionally at work, even when others aren’t. Communicating in a calm, patient manner is key to maintaining an appropriate workplace persona conducive to trust, respect and integrity. If personal matters are too big to be compartmentalized, it may be worth taking a personal day or seeking help .

3. Give Praise to Colleagues

People love to hear about themselves. The next time an opportunity arises, when a coworker provides illuminating insight during a presentation, makes a great save or when receiving help on an issue, paying a compliment can be a simple way to vocalize appreciation and build trust . While it’s best to deliver kudos from a place of authenticity, celebrating someone’s expertise — even when competing in office politics — is still a nice gesture.

4. Take Interest in Others

There is no need to climb the workplace social ladder as if it were the same one in high school; however, there’s no harm in inquiring about the personal lives of the people you work side-by-side with on a regular basis. Typically, what they talk about is what they care about most. With this information, you get a better understanding of who they are and the people you work with at large. Bonus points for committing a few notes to memory and then following up later.

5. Practice Active Listening

Nod along, hold eye contact, repeat back what the speakers said in your own words, ask questions to learn more about their perspective and respond thoughtfully to let them know that they’ve been heard.

6. Be Assertive

Voice your needs, thoughts or boundaries with confidence. Letting others know where you stand eliminates confusion, if there is any, and is a strong demonstration of self-respect that may inspire others to follow your lead. 

7. Practice Empathy 

Simple exercises like giving others the benefit of the doubt, putting yourself in other peoples’ shoes and drawing parallels out of other peoples’ circumstances to your own are a few ways to practice empathy . In the context of work, these practices may also aid in problem solving and conflict resolution, when applicable.

8. Maintain Relationships

Whether in or out of work, having a supportive network of healthy relationships is an enriching way to demonstrate that you value and prioritize others. Prioritize connecting with friends and colleagues on a semi-regular basis. This reflects well on you in a professional setting, as it demonstrates qualities like dependability, honesty, respect and that you understand mutual give-and-take.

Common Jobs That Require Interpersonal Skills

Interpersonal skills are crucial for jobs that require high levels of human interaction, including the following positions: 

  • Social worker 
  • Salesperson or customer support representative
  • Human resources manager

How to Highlight Interpersonal Skills on Your Resume

Interpersonal skills might seem more subtle than technical or hard skills, but there are ways to ensure they get plenty of attention on your resume.  

Showcase Interpersonal Skills in Past Projects

Include projects or roles where you spearheaded an initiative, worked with members of other teams or cultivated client relationships. Focus on skills like leadership and collaboration. 

Emphasize Interpersonal Skills Through Volunteer Work and Extracurriculars 

Volunteer work and extracurriculars can also reveal soft skills. Helping plan a community event, volunteering at a library and running a fundraiser for a senior care facility are all scenarios that require emotional intelligence, problem solving and other interpersonal skills. 

Add Interpersonal Skills in a Skills Section

If there’s room on your resume, include a skills section that provides a bullet list of specific skills. In addition to hard skills, you can include interpersonal skills like empathy, teamwork, creativity and conflict resolution. 

Choose Interpersonal Skills That Match Keywords

Keywords in job descriptions often hint at what skills to include in your resume . For example, if a job calls for someone who can collaborate across departments and is comfortable handling complex challenges, drive home your communication and problem-solving skills. 

Make Sure References Can Back Up Interpersonal Skills

Select interpersonal skills that you’ve been complimented on and can be confirmed by colleagues, mentors, teachers and other important figures in your career. Having an extra vote of approval can add more weight to any interpersonal skills you mention in your resume.

Frequently Asked Questions

What are some examples of interpersonal skills.

Communication, active listening, conflict resolution, creativity and problem-solving are a few examples of interpersonal skills. 

Why are interpersonal skills important?

Interpersonal skills enable professionals to become better coworkers and leaders in the workplace. As a result, many jobs require skills like empathy and leadership, making interpersonal skills essential for a successful career.

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Interpersonal Skills

Interpersonal skills are the skills we use every day when we communicate and interact with other people, both individually and in groups. They include a wide range of skills, but particularly communication skills such as listening and effective speaking. They also include the ability to control and manage your emotions.

It is no exaggeration to say that interpersonal skills are the foundation for success in life. People with strong interpersonal skills tend to be able to work well with other people, including in teams or groups, formally and informally. They communicate effectively with others, whether family, friends, colleagues, customers or clients. They also have better relationships at home and at work.

You can improve your interpersonal skills by developing your awareness of how you interact with others and practising your skills.

This page provides an overview of interpersonal skills and how they are developed and used. It explains where these skills are important, including particular jobs that may require very good interpersonal skills. Finally, it discusses how you can start to develop your interpersonal skills further.

What are Interpersonal Skills?

Interpersonal skills are sometimes referred to as social skills, people skills, soft skills, or life skills.

However, these terms can be used both more narrowly and more broadly than ‘ interpersonal skills ’. On this website, we define interpersonal skills as:

“The skills you need and use to communicate and interact with other people.”

This definition means that interpersonal skills therefore include:

  • Communication skills , which in turn covers:
  • Verbal Communication – what we say and how we say it;
  • Non-Verbal Communication – what we communicate without words, for example through body language, or tone of voice; and
  • Listening Skills – how we interpret both the verbal and non-verbal messages sent by others.
  • Emotional intelligence – being able to understand and manage your own and others’ emotions.
  • Team-working – being able to work with others in groups and teams, both formal and informal.
  • Negotiation, persuasion and influencing skills – working with others to find a mutually agreeable (Win/Win) outcome. This may be considered a subset of communication, but it is often treated separately.
  • Conflict resolution and mediation – working with others to resolve interpersonal conflict and disagreements in a positive way, which again may be considered a subset of communication.
  • Problem solving and decision-making – working with others to identify, define and solve problems, which includes making decisions about the best course of action.

The Importance of Interpersonal Skills

Interpersonal skills matter because none of us lives in a bubble.

In the course of our lives, we have to communicate with and interact with other people on a daily if not hourly basis, and sometimes more often. Good interpersonal skills ‘oil the wheels’ of these interactions, making them smoother and pleasanter for all those involved. They allow us to build better and longer-lasting relationships, both at home and at work.

Interpersonal skills at home

Good interpersonal skills help you to communicate more effectively with family and friends.

This is likely to be particularly important with your partner. For example, being able to give and receive feedback effectively with your partner can help to resolve small problems between you before they become big issues.

There is more about this, and other aspects of using interpersonal skills at home, in our pages on Personal and Romantic Relationship Skills and Parenting Skills .

Interpersonal skills at work

You may not like to think about it in these terms, but you almost certainly spend more time with your colleagues than your partner.

At work, you are required to communicate with and interact with a wide range of people, from suppliers and customers through to your immediate colleagues, colleagues further afield, your team and your manager. Your ability to do so effectively can make the difference between a successful working life, and one spent wondering what went wrong.

There are, of course, some jobs in which interpersonal skills are particularly important.

Customer-facing roles, such as sales and customer relations management, are likely to specify good interpersonal skills as a prerequisite. However, there are a number of other less obvious jobs and careers where interpersonal skills are also vitally important. These include:

Healthcare provision, including doctors, nurses and other healthcare professionals . Being able to listen to, and talk to, patients and their families is an essential skill, as is being able to give bad news in a sensitive way. We almost take these skills for granted in healthcare professionals—but we also know how devastating the situation can be when these professionals have poor skills and fail to communicate effectively.

Financial advice and brokerage . Financial advisers and brokers need to be able to listen carefully to their customers, and understand both what they are saying, and what they are not articulating. This enables them to provide recommendations that match their clients’ needs. Poor interpersonal skills mean that they will find it harder to build good customer relationships, and to understand customer needs.

Computer programming and development . This area is often thought of as the ultimate territory for ‘geeks’, with the assumption that interpersonal skills are not essential. However, technical developers increasingly need good interpersonal skills to understand their customers, and to be able to ‘translate’ between the technical and the practical.

Interpersonal Skills for Job Seekers

Good interpersonal skills are essential at work, but many people find them hard to demonstrate during a job application process. Some ideas to help include:

‘Naming and claiming’ in your CV or resume. Give a clear statement of a particular skill or skills that you possess, and then give examples to show how you have demonstrated them in practice. For example:

“I have excellent written communication skills, and my colleagues often ask me to check their written work for them before onward transmission.”

  • Carefully name-checking any specific skills that are mentioned in the job description or person specification. Make life easy for the recruiter. In your personal statement or covering letter, use the same terms as the job description or person specification, and again, give examples.

For more ideas about how to improve your chances of getting a job, see our pages on Writing a CV or Resume , Writing a Covering Letter and Applying for a Job .

Developing Your Interpersonal Skills

Good interpersonal skills are the foundation for good working and social relationships, and also for developing many other areas of skill.

It is therefore worth spending time developing good interpersonal skills.

You Already Have Interpersonal Skills

We've all been developing our interpersonal skills since childhood, usually subconsciously.

Interpersonal skills often become so natural that we take them for granted, never thinking about how we communicate with other people. If you have developed good habits, this is fine. However, it is of course also possible to develop bad habits, and then fail to understand why your communications or relationships are suffering.

Improving and developing your interpersonal skills is best done in steps, starting with the most basic, but vital:

1. Identify areas for improvement

The first step towards improving is to develop your knowledge of yourself and your weaknesses.

You may already have a good idea of areas that you need to develop. However, it is worth seeking feedback from other people, because it is easy to develop ‘blind spots’ about yourself. You might also find it useful to do our Interpersonal Skills Self-Assessment.

Discover your interpersonal skills strengths and weaknesses.

Our free self-assessment covers listening skills, verbal communication, emotional intelligence and working in groups.

problem solving and interpersonal communication

The self-assessment may give you an idea of which areas to develop first. It may, however, also be worth starting with the basics, and moving on from there.

2. Focus on your basic communication skills

Communication is far more than the words that come out of your mouth.

Some would even go so far as to suggest that there is a reason why you have two ears and one mouth, and that you should therefore listen twice as much as you talk!

Listening is very definitely not the same as hearing. Perhaps one of the most important things you can do for anyone else is to take the time to listen carefully to what they are saying, considering both their verbal and non-verbal communication. Using techniques like questioning and reflection demonstrates that you are both listening and interested.

Visit our Listening Skills pages to learn more.

When you are talking, be aware of the words you use. Could you be misunderstood or confuse the issue? Practise clarity and learn to seek feedback or clarification to ensure your message has been understood. By using questions effectively, you can both check others’ understanding, and also learn more from them.

Our page on Verbal Communication introduces this subject. You may also find our pages on Questioning and Clarification useful.

You may think that selecting your words is the most important part of getting a message across, but non-verbal communication actually plays a much bigger part than many of us are aware. Some experts suggest that around three-quarters of the ‘message’ is communicated by non-verbal signals such as body language, tone of voice, and the speed at which you speak.

These non-verbal signals reinforce or contradict the message of our words, and are much harder to fake than words. They are therefore a much more reliable signal. Learning to read body language is a vital part of communication.

For more about this, see our page on Non-Verbal Communication . If you are really interested, you may want to explore more, either about Body Language , or the importance of Face and Voice in non-verbal communication.

3. Improve your more advanced communication skills

Once you are confident in your basic listening and verbal and non-verbal communication, you can move on to more advanced areas around communication, such as becoming more effective in how you speak, and understanding why you may be having communication problems.

Our page on Effective Speaking includes tips on how to use your voice to full effect.

Communication is rarely perfect and can fail for a number of reasons. Understanding more about the possible barriers to good communication means that you can be aware of—and reduce the likelihood of—ineffective interpersonal communication and misunderstandings. Problems with communication can arise for a number of reasons, such as:

  • Physical barriers , for example, being unable to see or hear the speaker properly, or language difficulties;
  • Emotional barriers , such as not wanting to hear what is being said, or engage with that topic; and
  • Expectations and prejudices that affect what people see and hear.
See our page Barriers to Communication for more information.

There are also circumstances in which communication is more difficult: for example, when you have to have an unpleasant conversation with someone, perhaps about their standard of work. These conversations may be either planned or unplanned.

There tend to be two issues that make conversations more difficult: emotion, and change.

  • Various emotions can get in the way of communicating , including anger and aggression, or stress. Few of us are able to communicate effectively when we are struggling to manage our emotions, and sometimes the best thing that can be done is to postpone the conversation until everyone is calmer.
  • Difficult conversations are often about the need for change . Many of us find change hard to manage, especially if it is associated with an implied criticism of existing ways of working.
Our page Communicating in Difficult Situations offers further ideas to help you to get your message across when stress levels or other emotions are running high.

4. Look inwards

Interpersonal skills may be about how you relate to others, but they start with you . Many will be improved dramatically if you work on your personal skills.

For example, people are much more likely to be drawn to you if you can maintain a positive attitude. A positive attitude also translates into improved self-confidence.

You are also less likely to be able to communicate effectively if you are very stressed about something. It is therefore important to learn to recognise, manage and reduce stress in yourself and others (and see our section on Stress and Stress Management for more). Being able to remain assertive, without becoming either passive or aggressive, is also key to effective communication. There is more about this in our pages on Assertiveness .

Perhaps the most important overarching personal skill is developing emotional intelligence.

Emotional intelligence is the ability to understand your own and others’ emotions, and their effect on behaviour and attitudes. It is therefore perhaps best considered as both personal and interpersonal in its nature, but there is no doubt that improving your emotional intelligence will help in all areas of interpersonal skills. Daniel Goleman, the author of a number of books on emotional intelligence, identified five key areas, three of which are personal, and two interpersonal.

The personal skills , or ‘how we manage ourselves’, are self-awareness , self-regulation , and motivation . In other words, the first steps towards understanding and managing the emotions of others is to be able to understand and manage our own emotions, including understanding what motivates us.

The social skills , or ‘how we handle relationships with others’, are empathy and social skills . These mean understanding and feeling for others, and then being able to interact effectively with them.

Improving your emotional intelligence therefore improves your understanding that other people have different points of view. It helps you to try to see things from their perspective. In doing so, you may learn something whilst gaining the respect and trust of others.

5. Use and practise your interpersonal skills in particular situations

There are a number of situations in which you need to use interpersonal skills. Consciously putting yourself in those positions, and practising your skills, then reflecting on the outcomes, will help you to improve.

For example:

Interpersonal skills are essential when working in groups.

Group-work is also a common situation, both at home and at work, giving you plenty of opportunity to work on your skills. It may be helpful to understand more about group dynamics and ways of working, as these can affect how both you and others behave.

For more about the different types of teams and groups, see our page An introduction to Teams and Groups , and for more about how people behave in groups, see Group and Team Roles . You can find more about the skills essential to team working in our page on Effective Team-Working .

Interpersonal skills may also be particularly helpful if you have to negotiate, persuade and influence others.

Effective negotiations—that is, where you are seeking a win–win outcome, rather than win–lose—will pave the way to mutual respect, trust and lasting interpersonal relations. Only by looking for a solution that works for both parties, rather than seeking to win at all costs, can you establish a good relationship that will enable you to work together over and over again.

Being able to persuade and influence others—again, for mutual benefit—is also a key building block towards strong interpersonal relations.

There is more about all of these in our pages on Negotiation and Persuasion . These pages explain negotiation , and discuss how it works , and explore the art of persuasion and influence in more detail.

Resolving and mediating in conflict scenarios can be a real test of interpersonal skills

Sometimes negotiation and persuasion are not enough to avoid conflict. When this happens, you need strong conflict resolution and potentially even mediation skills. Conflict can arise from poorly-handled interpersonal communications, and may be addressed simply by listening carefully to both sides, and demonstrating that you have done so. Finding a win–win situation is similarly important here, because it shows that you respect both sides.

These skills may be thought of as advanced communication skills. However, if you are often required to manage such situations, some specialist training may be helpful.

See our pages on Conflict Resolution and Mediation Skills for more.

Finally, problem-solving and decision-making are usually better when they involve more than one person

Problem-solving and decision-making are key life skills. While both can be done alone, they are often better for the involvement of more people. This means that they also frequently involve interpersonal elements, and there is no doubt that better interpersonal skills will help with both.

See our pages on Problem-Solving and Decision-Making for more.

6. Reflect on your experience and improve

The final element in developing and improving your interpersonal skills is to develop the habit of self-reflection. Taking time to think about conversations and interpersonal interactions will enable you to learn from your mistakes and successes, and continue to develop. You might, for example, find it helpful to keep a diary or learning journal and write in it each week.

For more about this, see our pages on Reflective Practice and Improving Communication Skills .

Further Reading from Skills You Need

The Skills You Need Guide to Interpersonal Skills eBooks.

The Skills You Need Guide to Interpersonal Skills

Develop your interpersonal skills with our series of eBooks. Learn about and improve your communication skills, tackle conflict resolution, mediate in difficult situations, and develop your emotional intelligence.

Continue to: Developing Interpersonal Skills in Children Interpersonal Communication Skills Principles of Interpersonal Communication

Master of Business Administration

  • Career Outlook
  • Admission Requirements

Developing Effective Interpersonal Communication Skills in the Workplace

February 10, 2017  |  4 Min Read

interpersonal communication skills in the workplace header image

Interpersonal communication is a soft skill that encompasses how well an individual communicates with others. This skill set, also referred to as “people skills” or “social skills,” is one of the most important for success in the workplace. Communication can take place both verbally and nonverbally, either in person or through digital means such as email or instant messaging. In communication theory, there are six key components of interpersonal communication:

  • The communicators: This refers to both the sender of the communication and the receiver. There are at least two communicators involved in all interpersonal communication.
  • The message: One of the most important parts of interpersonal communication is the message. It can be conveyed in many ways: speech, body language, tone of voice, gestures and other indicators. Non-verbal messages provide additional information that may not be readily apparent through words.
  • Noise: This refers to any distortion that causes differences between what is received and what it sent , according to resource website Examples of noise include jargon, language barriers, inattention and more.
  • Feedback: Feedback is the response of the receiver. In other words, it’s the message sent back to the sender. This allows the sender to know whether the message has been received and interpreted correctly.
  • Context: Whether a message is received and interpreted correctly depends largely on context. “The emotional climate and expectations of the people, the place of occurrence, and social, political, cultural and environmental conditions comprise context,” says.
  • Channel: Finally, this component refers to how the communication occurs. A message is sent and received through a specific channel, or medium.

Interpersonal Communication in the Workplace

Interpersonal communication is one of the most important life skills business professionals can have. In companies and organizations of all types, effective communication determines whether a team can operate effectively and accomplish core business goals. “It underlies the efficiency of key business functions such as managing, training, selling and resolving conflicts within an organization,” Chron Small Business explains.

Elements of Interpersonal Communication

Interpersonal communication can also be divided into subskills . Effective communication in the workplace relies on each of the following elements:

  • Problem solving and decision making: One of the best ways to maintain professional relationships is through effective problem solving and decision making. Both of these skills align team members toward a common goal. If leaders are unable to take the steps necessary to solve problems and make the right decision for the team, a business can’t function successfully.
  • Listening: Strong listening skills are invaluable for business professionals. They help individuals understand sent messages and act accordingly. If a manager provides instructions but team members are unable to listen and synthesize the information, roadblocks will arise that can derail projects and cause negative consequences.
  • Assertiveness: A commonly undervalued element of interpersonal communication is assertiveness. The ability to influence others helps leaders drive the team toward a common goal. Being willing to take charge and effect change is one of the hallmarks of a business leader.
  • Negotiation: This skill is a key element in conflict resolution. Finding common ground and identifying shared goals can help business professionals work effectively with others.  

How to Improve Interpersonal Communication in the Workplace

Here are some of the ways business professionals can improve interpersonal communication in the workplace.

  • Research and plan: Gather facts and relevant data to plan for important conversations. This helps ensure clarity and accuracy.
  • Determine your audience: Consider coworkers’ personality and mindset before approaching a conversation. Find the right communication style for your specific situation. Some conversations lend themselves to face-to-face meetings, while others can be best accomplished through email.
  • Self-evaluation: Understand your own strengths and weaknesses when it comes to communication. Ask for honest feedback from coworkers and managers as a learning opportunity to better inform future interactions.
  • Monitor expectations: Keep assumptions and expectations to a minimum before engaging with a coworker. You never know for sure how someone will react, so be ready to adapt as the situation demands.

Skill Development Through Graduate Coursework

Earning a Master of Business Administration (MBA) is an ideal way to develop stronger interpersonal communication skills. Concordia University, St. Paul’s fully online MBA balances advanced business coursework with hands-on projects that help students develop real-world skills for the workplace. On campus program options are also available.

If you are interested in advanced business topics like these, consider Concordia University, St. Paul’s online MBA program . You can also download our free guide , “Climbing the Corporate Ladder: Your Guide to the MBA and Beyond,” for an in-depth look at the value of the MBA.

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Effective communication skills: resolving conflicts .

Couple in conflict

Even the happiest of relationships experience conflicts and problems (Markman, Stanley, Blumberg, Jenkins & Whiteley, 2004). If handled well, issues provide opportunities for personal and relationship growth. There are many skills that can help individuals seeking to resolve conflicts in a healthy way. One of the greatest skills that aids in conflict resolution is effective communication.

Common Conflicts

Issues, or conflicts, in relationships consist of any situation, event or experience that is of concern or importance to those involved. A variety of factors lead to conflict, some of which include topics such as money, children, and in-laws, personal issues such as selfesteem, values, expectations, or goals, or relational issues such as the amount of together time versus alone time, support versus control, affection, and communication (Miller & Miller, 1997). While there are seemingly endless reasons for conflicts, they generally surround the underlying needs of all humans including physical, intellectual, emotional, social, and spiritual (Miller & Miller, 1997; Townsend, 2010). Most importantly, how we approach and communicate about these issues often determines the outcome.

Conflicts in Communication

Most people know that in order to resolve conflicts, we need to communicate about the issue; but negative patterns of communication can often lead to greater frustration and escalation of conflict. Consider the following communication challenges:

Body Language/Tone of Voice

Communication is more than the words we choose to use. In fact, our body language and tone of voice often speak louder than our words. For example, shouting “I’m not angry” is not a very convincing message! When we give an incongruent message where our tone of voice and body language does not match our message, confusion and frustration often follow (Gottman & DeClaire, 2001). In order to overcome this communication challenge, we need to be aware of what messages our body language and tone of voice may be sending others. Speak calmly, give eye contact, smile when appropriate, and maintain an open and relaxed posture (Paterson, 2000).

Differences in Style

Each of us has a unique way of communicating, often based on our family experiences, culture, gender and many other factors (Markman et al., 2004; Miller & Miller, 1997). For example, we may tend to be more loud, outgoing, or emotional when compared to our partner. While there is no right or wrong style, our past experiences often lead to expectations that are not usually verbally communicated with others, which can cause tension and misunderstandings in relationships. For example, if we came from a large family that tended to shout in order to be heard, we may think that speaking loudly is normal. But if our partner came from a calmer family environment, he/she may be uncomfortable or even frightened by a raised voice (Markman et al., 2004).

Discussing our backgrounds and perceptions can help to clarify expectations to ourselves and others and can also help our partner to understand our point of view. Knowing this information can often help in the problem solving process.

Communication Roadblocks

Communication roadblocks occur when two people talk in such a way that neither one feels understood. Research has found four particularly negative styles of communication, often referred to as the “four horsemen of the apocalypse,” (Gottman, 1999, p.27) because if left unchecked, these styles of interaction can eventually become lethal to relationships. These styles are criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling (Gottman, 1999).

  • Criticism attacks the character or personality of another. While it is normal to have complaints about another’s specific actions, it is very different to put them down as a person because of those actions. For example, a complaint might be, “I felt worried when you did not call to tell me that you were going to be home late.” A criticism in the same situation would be expressed as “You are so inconsiderate, you never call me when you are going to be late.” Critiques focus on certain behaviors; criticism negatively focuses on the person’s intentions and character.
  • Contempt portrays disgust and a lack of respect for the other person through body language, such as eye rolling or sneering, or by name calling, sarcasm and cutting remarks.
  • Defensiveness is a seemingly understandable reaction that individuals take to criticism and contempt; however, it often escalates the conflict. When we are defensive, we tend to stop listening to the other’s viewpoint and communication is shut down.
  • Stonewalling is withdrawing from communication and refusing to engage in discussion. In other words, it is the adult version of the “silent treatment” that young children utilize when they are upset. Conflict resolution is impossible without communication!

Some additional examples of communication roadblocks include (Miller & Miller, 1997):

  • Ordering (“Stop complaining!”)
  • Warning (“If you do that, you’ll be sorry.”)
  • Preaching (“You shouldn’t act like that.”)
  • Advising (“Just wait a couple of years before deciding.”)
  • Lecturing (“If you do this now, you won’t grow up to be a responsible adult.”)
  • Agreeing, just to keep the peace (“I think you’re right.”)
  • Ridiculing (“OK, little baby.”)
  • Interpreting (“You don’t really believe that.”)
  • Sympathizing (“Don’t worry, it’ll all work out.”)
  • Questioning (“Who put that idea into your head?”)
  • Diverting (“Let’s talk about something more pleasant.”)

Communication roadblocks are very common; however, they do not promote healthy conflict resolution and often lead to escalation of the conflict. Recognizing these roadblocks and making efforts to effectively communicate can help individuals overcome roadblocks.

Tips to Resolve Conflict

Soften the startup.

One of the skills to overcome communication roadblocks includes a soft startup to the conversation by starting with something positive, expressing appreciation, focusing on problems one at a time and taking responsibility for thoughts and feelings (Gottman, 1999; Gottman & Declaire, 2001; Patterson, 2000). In addition, when expressing the problem, starting the message with “I” instead of “You” can decrease defensiveness and promote positive interactions with others (Darrington & Brower, 2012). For example, “I want to stay more involved in making decisions about money” rather than “You never include me in financial decisions.”

Make and Receive Repair Attempts.

Another important skill in overcoming communication roadblocks is learning to make and receive repair attempts (Gottman, 1999). Repair attempts are efforts to keep an increasingly negative interaction from going any further by taking a break or making efforts to calm the situation. This is important because when conflicts arise, we often experience intense emotional and physical stress that can impact our ability to think and reason, which can lead to communication roadblocks (Gottman & DeClaire, 2001). Taking time away from the conflict (at least 20 minutes) to calm down can help us be more prepared to discuss the issue (Gottman, 1999; Gottman & DeClaire, 2001; Markman et al, 2004).

Effective Speaking and Listening Skills

Overcoming communication roadblocks requires effective speaking and listening skills. Markman, Stanley and Blumberg (2010) share what they call the “speaker-listener” technique to help individuals more effectively communicate. Each partner takes turns being the speaker and the listener.    

The rules for the speaker include (Markman et al., 2004; Markman, Stanley & Blumberg, 2010):

  • The speaker should share his/her own thoughts, feelings and concerns—not what he/she thinks the listener’s concerns are.
  • Use “I” statements when speaking to accurately express thoughts and feelings.
  • Keep statements short, to ensure the listener does not get overwhelmed with information.
  • Stop after each short statement so that the listener can paraphrase, or repeat back in his/her own words, what was said to ensure he/she understands. If the paraphrase is not quite right, gently rephrase the statement again to help the listener understand.

The rules for the listener include:

  • Paraphrase what the speaker is saying. If unclear, ask for clarification. Continue until the speaker indicates the message was received correctly.
  • Don’t argue or give opinion about what the speaker says—wait to do this until you are the speaker, and then do so in a respectful manner.
  • While the speaker is talking, the listener should not talk or interrupt except to paraphrase after the speaker.

The speaker and listener should take turns in each role so that each has a chance to express his/her thoughts and feelings. Either can call for a time out at any time. The goal of this activity is not to solve a particular problem, but rather to have a safe and meaningful discussion and to understand each other’s point of view. While we may not always agree with the other’s point of view, understanding and validating other’s thoughts and feelings can improve relationships and help us build on common ground, which may lead to more effective negotiation and problem resolution (Gottman, 1999).

Dealing with conflict can take varying amounts of mental, emotional, and physical energy (Miller & Miller, 1997). It can be work! However, learning and implementing a few simple communication skills can increase positive interactions with others. The opportunities for personal and relationship growth are well worth the effort.

For more information or for classes and workshops:

  • Go to for tips, articles, and to find relationship education classes near you.
  • Check out your local Extension office for relationship education classes and events. 
  • Darrington, J., & Brower, N. (2012). Effective communication skills: “I” messages and beyond. Utah State University Extension. cation=14541
  • Gottman, J. M., & DeClaire, J. (2001). The relationship cure: A 5 step guide to strengthening your marriage, family, and friendships. New York, NY: Three Rivers Press.
  • Gottman, J. M., & Silver, N. (1999). The seven principles for making marriage work. New York, NY: Three Rivers Press.
  • Markman, H. J., Stanley, S. M., & Blumberg, S. L. (2010). Fighting for your marriage. San Francisco: Jossey Bass.
  • Markman, H. J, Stanley, S. M., Blumberg, S. L., Jenkins, N. H., & Whiteley, C. (2004). 12 hours to a great marriage: A step-by-step guide for making love last. San Francisco: Jossey Bass.
  • Miller, S., & Miller, P. A. (1997). Core communication: Skills and processes. Evergreen, Co: Interpersonal Communication Programs, Inc.
  • Paterson, R. J. (2000). The assertiveness workbook: How to express your ideas and stand up for yourself at work and in relationships. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger, Inc.
  • Townsend, M. (2010). Starved stuff: Feeding the 7 basic needs of healthy relationships. Townsend Relationship Center.

Naomi Brower,  MFHD, CFLE, Extension Assistant Professor; Jana Darrington,  MS, Extension Assistant Professor

Naomi Brower

Naomi Brower

Extension Professor | Couple and Family Relationships | Weber County Director

Home and Community Department

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6.2 Conflict and Interpersonal Communication

Learning objectives.

  • Define interpersonal conflict.
  • Compare and contrast the five styles of interpersonal conflict management.
  • Explain how perception and culture influence interpersonal conflict.
  • List strategies for effectively managing conflict.

Who do you have the most conflict with right now? Your answer to this question probably depends on the various contexts in your life. If you still live at home with a parent or parents, you may have daily conflicts with your family as you try to balance your autonomy, or desire for independence, with the practicalities of living under your family’s roof. If you’ve recently moved away to go to college, you may be negotiating roommate conflicts as you adjust to living with someone you may not know at all. You probably also have experiences managing conflict in romantic relationships and in the workplace. So think back and ask yourself, “How well do I handle conflict?” As with all areas of communication, we can improve if we have the background knowledge to identify relevant communication phenomena and the motivation to reflect on and enhance our communication skills.

Interpersonal conflict occurs in interactions where there are real or perceived incompatible goals, scarce resources, or opposing viewpoints. Interpersonal conflict may be expressed verbally or nonverbally along a continuum ranging from a nearly imperceptible cold shoulder to a very obvious blowout. Interpersonal conflict is, however, distinct from interpersonal violence, which goes beyond communication to include abuse. Domestic violence is a serious issue and is discussed in the section “The Dark Side of Relationships.”


Interpersonal conflict is distinct from interpersonal violence, which goes beyond communication to include abuse.

Bobafred – Fist Fight – CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Conflict is an inevitable part of close relationships and can take a negative emotional toll. It takes effort to ignore someone or be passive aggressive, and the anger or guilt we may feel after blowing up at someone are valid negative feelings. However, conflict isn’t always negative or unproductive. In fact, numerous research studies have shown that quantity of conflict in a relationship is not as important as how the conflict is handled (Markman et al., 1993). Additionally, when conflict is well managed, it has the potential to lead to more rewarding and satisfactory relationships (Canary & Messman, 2000).

Improving your competence in dealing with conflict can yield positive effects in the real world. Since conflict is present in our personal and professional lives, the ability to manage conflict and negotiate desirable outcomes can help us be more successful at both. Whether you and your partner are trying to decide what brand of flat-screen television to buy or discussing the upcoming political election with your mother, the potential for conflict is present. In professional settings, the ability to engage in conflict management, sometimes called conflict resolution, is a necessary and valued skill. However, many professionals do not receive training in conflict management even though they are expected to do it as part of their job (Gates, 2006). A lack of training and a lack of competence could be a recipe for disaster, which is illustrated in an episode of The Office titled “Conflict Resolution.” In the episode, Toby, the human-resources officer, encourages office employees to submit anonymous complaints about their coworkers. Although Toby doesn’t attempt to resolve the conflicts, the employees feel like they are being heard. When Michael, the manager, finds out there is unresolved conflict, he makes the anonymous complaints public in an attempt to encourage resolution, which backfires, creating more conflict within the office. As usual, Michael doesn’t demonstrate communication competence; however, there are career paths for people who do have an interest in or talent for conflict management. In fact, being a mediator was named one of the best careers for 2011 by U.S. News and World Report . [1] Many colleges and universities now offer undergraduate degrees, graduate degrees, or certificates in conflict resolution, such as this one at the University of North Carolina Greensboro: . Being able to manage conflict situations can make life more pleasant rather than letting a situation stagnate or escalate. The negative effects of poorly handled conflict could range from an awkward last few weeks of the semester with a college roommate to violence or divorce. However, there is no absolute right or wrong way to handle a conflict. Remember that being a competent communicator doesn’t mean that you follow a set of absolute rules. Rather, a competent communicator assesses multiple contexts and applies or adapts communication tools and skills to fit the dynamic situation.

Conflict Management Styles

Would you describe yourself as someone who prefers to avoid conflict? Do you like to get your way? Are you good at working with someone to reach a solution that is mutually beneficial? Odds are that you have been in situations where you could answer yes to each of these questions, which underscores the important role context plays in conflict and conflict management styles in particular. The way we view and deal with conflict is learned and contextual. Is the way you handle conflicts similar to the way your parents handle conflict? If you’re of a certain age, you are likely predisposed to answer this question with a certain “No!” It wasn’t until my late twenties and early thirties that I began to see how similar I am to my parents, even though I, like many, spent years trying to distinguish myself from them. Research does show that there is intergenerational transmission of traits related to conflict management. As children, we test out different conflict resolution styles we observe in our families with our parents and siblings. Later, as we enter adolescence and begin developing platonic and romantic relationships outside the family, we begin testing what we’ve learned from our parents in other settings. If a child has observed and used negative conflict management styles with siblings or parents, he or she is likely to exhibit those behaviors with non–family members (Reese-Weber & Bartle-Haring, 1998).

There has been much research done on different types of conflict management styles, which are communication strategies that attempt to avoid, address, or resolve a conflict. Keep in mind that we don’t always consciously choose a style. We may instead be caught up in emotion and become reactionary. The strategies for more effectively managing conflict that will be discussed later may allow you to slow down the reaction process, become more aware of it, and intervene in the process to improve your communication. A powerful tool to mitigate conflict is information exchange. Asking for more information before you react to a conflict-triggering event is a good way to add a buffer between the trigger and your reaction. Another key element is whether or not a communicator is oriented toward self-centered or other-centered goals. For example, if your goal is to “win” or make the other person “lose,” you show a high concern for self and a low concern for other. If your goal is to facilitate a “win/win” resolution or outcome, you show a high concern for self and other. In general, strategies that facilitate information exchange and include concern for mutual goals will be more successful at managing conflict (Sillars, 1980).

The five strategies for managing conflict we will discuss are competing, avoiding, accommodating, compromising, and collaborating. Each of these conflict styles accounts for the concern we place on self versus other (see Figure 6.1 “Five Styles of Interpersonal Conflict Management” ).

Figure 6.1 Five Styles of Interpersonal Conflict Management


Source: Adapted from M. Afzalur Rahim, “A Measure of Styles of Handling Interpersonal Conflict,” Academy of Management Journal 26, no. 2 (1983): 368–76.

In order to better understand the elements of the five styles of conflict management, we will apply each to the follow scenario. Rosa and D’Shaun have been partners for seventeen years. Rosa is growing frustrated because D’Shaun continues to give money to their teenage daughter, Casey, even though they decided to keep the teen on a fixed allowance to try to teach her more responsibility. While conflicts regarding money and child rearing are very common, we will see the numerous ways that Rosa and D’Shaun could address this problem.

The competing style indicates a high concern for self and a low concern for other. When we compete, we are striving to “win” the conflict, potentially at the expense or “loss” of the other person. One way we may gauge our win is by being granted or taking concessions from the other person. For example, if D’Shaun gives Casey extra money behind Rosa’s back, he is taking an indirect competitive route resulting in a “win” for him because he got his way. The competing style also involves the use of power, which can be noncoercive or coercive (Sillars, 1980). Noncoercive strategies include requesting and persuading. When requesting, we suggest the conflict partner change a behavior. Requesting doesn’t require a high level of information exchange. When we persuade, however, we give our conflict partner reasons to support our request or suggestion, meaning there is more information exchange, which may make persuading more effective than requesting. Rosa could try to persuade D’Shaun to stop giving Casey extra allowance money by bringing up their fixed budget or reminding him that they are saving for a summer vacation. Coercive strategies violate standard guidelines for ethical communication and may include aggressive communication directed at rousing your partner’s emotions through insults, profanity, and yelling, or through threats of punishment if you do not get your way. If Rosa is the primary income earner in the family, she could use that power to threaten to take D’Shaun’s ATM card away if he continues giving Casey money. In all these scenarios, the “win” that could result is only short term and can lead to conflict escalation. Interpersonal conflict is rarely isolated, meaning there can be ripple effects that connect the current conflict to previous and future conflicts. D’Shaun’s behind-the-scenes money giving or Rosa’s confiscation of the ATM card could lead to built-up negative emotions that could further test their relationship.

Competing has been linked to aggression, although the two are not always paired. If assertiveness does not work, there is a chance it could escalate to hostility. There is a pattern of verbal escalation: requests, demands, complaints, angry statements, threats, harassment, and verbal abuse (Johnson & Roloff, 2000). Aggressive communication can become patterned, which can create a volatile and hostile environment. The reality television show The Bad Girls Club is a prime example of a chronically hostile and aggressive environment. If you do a Google video search for clips from the show, you will see yelling, screaming, verbal threats, and some examples of physical violence. The producers of the show choose houseguests who have histories of aggression, and when the “bad girls” are placed in a house together, they fall into typical patterns, which creates dramatic television moments. Obviously, living in this type of volatile environment would create stressors in any relationship, so it’s important to monitor the use of competing as a conflict resolution strategy to ensure that it does not lapse into aggression.

The competing style of conflict management is not the same thing as having a competitive personality. Competition in relationships isn’t always negative, and people who enjoy engaging in competition may not always do so at the expense of another person’s goals. In fact, research has shown that some couples engage in competitive shared activities like sports or games to maintain and enrich their relationship (Dindia & Baxter, 1987). And although we may think that competitiveness is gendered, research has often shown that women are just as competitive as men (Messman & Mikesell, 2000).

The avoiding style of conflict management often indicates a low concern for self and a low concern for other, and no direct communication about the conflict takes place. However, as we will discuss later, in some cultures that emphasize group harmony over individual interests, and even in some situations in the United States, avoiding a conflict can indicate a high level of concern for the other. In general, avoiding doesn’t mean that there is no communication about the conflict. Remember, you cannot not communicate . Even when we try to avoid conflict, we may intentionally or unintentionally give our feelings away through our verbal and nonverbal communication. Rosa’s sarcastic tone as she tells D’Shaun that he’s “Soooo good with money!” and his subsequent eye roll both bring the conflict to the surface without specifically addressing it. The avoiding style is either passive or indirect, meaning there is little information exchange, which may make this strategy less effective than others. We may decide to avoid conflict for many different reasons, some of which are better than others. If you view the conflict as having little importance to you, it may be better to ignore it. If the person you’re having conflict with will only be working in your office for a week, you may perceive a conflict to be temporary and choose to avoid it and hope that it will solve itself. If you are not emotionally invested in the conflict, you may be able to reframe your perspective and see the situation in a different way, therefore resolving the issue. In all these cases, avoiding doesn’t really require an investment of time, emotion, or communication skill, so there is not much at stake to lose.

Avoidance is not always an easy conflict management choice, because sometimes the person we have conflict with isn’t a temp in our office or a weekend houseguest. While it may be easy to tolerate a problem when you’re not personally invested in it or view it as temporary, when faced with a situation like Rosa and D’Shaun’s, avoidance would just make the problem worse. For example, avoidance could first manifest as changing the subject, then progress from avoiding the issue to avoiding the person altogether, to even ending the relationship.

Indirect strategies of hinting and joking also fall under the avoiding style. While these indirect avoidance strategies may lead to a buildup of frustration or even anger, they allow us to vent a little of our built-up steam and may make a conflict situation more bearable. When we hint, we drop clues that we hope our partner will find and piece together to see the problem and hopefully change, thereby solving the problem without any direct communication. In almost all the cases of hinting that I have experienced or heard about, the person dropping the hints overestimates their partner’s detective abilities. For example, when Rosa leaves the bank statement on the kitchen table in hopes that D’Shaun will realize how much extra money he is giving Casey, D’Shaun may simply ignore it or even get irritated with Rosa for not putting the statement with all the other mail. We also overestimate our partner’s ability to decode the jokes we make about a conflict situation. It is more likely that the receiver of the jokes will think you’re genuinely trying to be funny or feel provoked or insulted than realize the conflict situation that you are referencing. So more frustration may develop when the hints and jokes are not decoded, which often leads to a more extreme form of hinting/joking: passive-aggressive behavior.

Passive-aggressive behavior is a way of dealing with conflict in which one person indirectly communicates their negative thoughts or feelings through nonverbal behaviors, such as not completing a task. For example, Rosa may wait a few days to deposit money into the bank so D’Shaun can’t withdraw it to give to Casey, or D’Shaun may cancel plans for a romantic dinner because he feels like Rosa is questioning his responsibility with money. Although passive-aggressive behavior can feel rewarding in the moment, it is one of the most unproductive ways to deal with conflict. These behaviors may create additional conflicts and may lead to a cycle of passive-aggressiveness in which the other partner begins to exhibit these behaviors as well, while never actually addressing the conflict that originated the behavior. In most avoidance situations, both parties lose. However, as noted above, avoidance can be the most appropriate strategy in some situations—for example, when the conflict is temporary, when the stakes are low or there is little personal investment, or when there is the potential for violence or retaliation.


The accommodating conflict management style indicates a low concern for self and a high concern for other and is often viewed as passive or submissive, in that someone complies with or obliges another without providing personal input. The context for and motivation behind accommodating play an important role in whether or not it is an appropriate strategy. Generally, we accommodate because we are being generous, we are obeying, or we are yielding (Bobot, 2010). If we are being generous, we accommodate because we genuinely want to; if we are obeying, we don’t have a choice but to accommodate (perhaps due to the potential for negative consequences or punishment); and if we yield, we may have our own views or goals but give up on them due to fatigue, time constraints, or because a better solution has been offered. Accommodating can be appropriate when there is little chance that our own goals can be achieved, when we don’t have much to lose by accommodating, when we feel we are wrong, or when advocating for our own needs could negatively affect the relationship (Isenhart & Spangle, 2000). The occasional accommodation can be useful in maintaining a relationship—remember earlier we discussed putting another’s needs before your own as a way to achieve relational goals. For example, Rosa may say, “It’s OK that you gave Casey some extra money; she did have to spend more on gas this week since the prices went up.” However, being a team player can slip into being a pushover, which people generally do not appreciate. If Rosa keeps telling D’Shaun, “It’s OK this time,” they may find themselves short on spending money at the end of the month. At that point, Rosa and D’Shaun’s conflict may escalate as they question each other’s motives, or the conflict may spread if they direct their frustration at Casey and blame it on her irresponsibility.

Research has shown that the accommodating style is more likely to occur when there are time restraints and less likely to occur when someone does not want to appear weak (Cai & Fink, 2002). If you’re standing outside the movie theatre and two movies are starting, you may say, “Let’s just have it your way,” so you don’t miss the beginning. If you’re a new manager at an electronics store and an employee wants to take Sunday off to watch a football game, you may say no to set an example for the other employees. As with avoiding, there are certain cultural influences we will discuss later that make accommodating a more effective strategy.


The compromising style shows a moderate concern for self and other and may indicate that there is a low investment in the conflict and/or the relationship. Even though we often hear that the best way to handle a conflict is to compromise, the compromising style isn’t a win/win solution; it is a partial win/lose. In essence, when we compromise, we give up some or most of what we want. It’s true that the conflict gets resolved temporarily, but lingering thoughts of what you gave up could lead to a future conflict. Compromising may be a good strategy when there are time limitations or when prolonging a conflict may lead to relationship deterioration. Compromise may also be good when both parties have equal power or when other resolution strategies have not worked (Macintosh & Stevens, 2008).


Compromising may help conflicting parties come to a resolution, but neither may be completely satisfied if they each had to give something up.

Broad Bean Media – handshake – CC BY-SA 2.0.

A negative of compromising is that it may be used as an easy way out of a conflict. The compromising style is most effective when both parties find the solution agreeable. Rosa and D’Shaun could decide that Casey’s allowance does need to be increased and could each give ten more dollars a week by committing to taking their lunch to work twice a week instead of eating out. They are both giving up something, and if neither of them have a problem with taking their lunch to work, then the compromise was equitable. If the couple agrees that the twenty extra dollars a week should come out of D’Shaun’s golf budget, the compromise isn’t as equitable, and D’Shaun, although he agreed to the compromise, may end up with feelings of resentment. Wouldn’t it be better to both win?


The collaborating style involves a high degree of concern for self and other and usually indicates investment in the conflict situation and the relationship. Although the collaborating style takes the most work in terms of communication competence, it ultimately leads to a win/win situation in which neither party has to make concessions because a mutually beneficial solution is discovered or created. The obvious advantage is that both parties are satisfied, which could lead to positive problem solving in the future and strengthen the overall relationship. For example, Rosa and D’Shaun may agree that Casey’s allowance needs to be increased and may decide to give her twenty more dollars a week in exchange for her babysitting her little brother one night a week. In this case, they didn’t make the conflict personal but focused on the situation and came up with a solution that may end up saving them money. The disadvantage is that this style is often time consuming, and only one person may be willing to use this approach while the other person is eager to compete to meet their goals or willing to accommodate.

Here are some tips for collaborating and achieving a win/win outcome (Hargie, 2011):

  • Do not view the conflict as a contest you are trying to win.
  • Remain flexible and realize there are solutions yet to be discovered.
  • Distinguish the people from the problem (don’t make it personal).
  • Determine what the underlying needs are that are driving the other person’s demands (needs can still be met through different demands).
  • Identify areas of common ground or shared interests that you can work from to develop solutions.
  • Ask questions to allow them to clarify and to help you understand their perspective.
  • Listen carefully and provide verbal and nonverbal feedback.

“Getting Competent”

Handling Roommate Conflicts

Whether you have a roommate by choice, by necessity, or through the random selection process of your school’s housing office, it’s important to be able to get along with the person who shares your living space. While having a roommate offers many benefits such as making a new friend, having someone to experience a new situation like college life with, and having someone to split the cost on your own with, there are also challenges. Some common roommate conflicts involve neatness, noise, having guests, sharing possessions, value conflicts, money conflicts, and personality conflicts (Ball State University, 2001). Read the following scenarios and answer the following questions for each one:

  • Which conflict management style, from the five discussed, would you use in this situation?
  • What are the potential strengths of using this style?
  • What are the potential weaknesses of using this style?

Scenario 1: Neatness. Your college dorm has bunk beds, and your roommate takes a lot of time making his bed (the bottom bunk) each morning. He has told you that he doesn’t want anyone sitting on or sleeping in his bed when he is not in the room. While he is away for the weekend, your friend comes to visit and sits on the bottom bunk bed. You tell him what your roommate said, and you try to fix the bed back before he returns to the dorm. When he returns, he notices that his bed has been disturbed and he confronts you about it.

Scenario 2: Noise and having guests. Your roommate has a job waiting tables and gets home around midnight on Thursday nights. She often brings a couple friends from work home with her. They watch television, listen to music, or play video games and talk and laugh. You have an 8 a.m. class on Friday mornings and are usually asleep when she returns. Last Friday, you talked to her and asked her to keep it down in the future. Tonight, their noise has woken you up and you can’t get back to sleep.

Scenario 3: Sharing possessions. When you go out to eat, you often bring back leftovers to have for lunch the next day during your short break between classes. You didn’t have time to eat breakfast, and you’re really excited about having your leftover pizza for lunch until you get home and see your roommate sitting on the couch eating the last slice.

Scenario 4: Money conflicts. Your roommate got mono and missed two weeks of work last month. Since he has a steady job and you have some savings, you cover his portion of the rent and agree that he will pay your portion next month. The next month comes around and he informs you that he only has enough to pay his half.

Scenario 5: Value and personality conflicts. You like to go out to clubs and parties and have friends over, but your roommate is much more of an introvert. You’ve tried to get her to come out with you or join the party at your place, but she’d rather study. One day she tells you that she wants to break the lease so she can move out early to live with one of her friends. You both signed the lease, so you have to agree or she can’t do it. If you break the lease, you automatically lose your portion of the security deposit.

Culture and Conflict

Culture is an important context to consider when studying conflict, and recent research has called into question some of the assumptions of the five conflict management styles discussed so far, which were formulated with a Western bias (Oetzel, Garcia, & Ting-Toomey, 2008). For example, while the avoiding style of conflict has been cast as negative, with a low concern for self and other or as a lose/lose outcome, this research found that participants in the United States, Germany, China, and Japan all viewed avoiding strategies as demonstrating a concern for the other. While there are some generalizations we can make about culture and conflict, it is better to look at more specific patterns of how interpersonal communication and conflict management are related. We can better understand some of the cultural differences in conflict management by further examining the concept of face .

What does it mean to “save face?” This saying generally refers to preventing embarrassment or preserving our reputation or image, which is similar to the concept of face in interpersonal and intercultural communication. Our face is the projected self we desire to put into the world, and facework refers to the communicative strategies we employ to project, maintain, or repair our face or maintain, repair, or challenge another’s face. Face negotiation theory argues that people in all cultures negotiate face through communication encounters, and that cultural factors influence how we engage in facework, especially in conflict situations (Oetzel & Ting-Toomey, 2003). These cultural factors influence whether we are more concerned with self-face or other-face and what types of conflict management strategies we may use. One key cultural influence on face negotiation is the distinction between individualistic and collectivistic cultures.

The distinction between individualistic and collectivistic cultures is an important dimension across which all cultures vary. Individualistic cultures like the United States and most of Europe emphasize individual identity over group identity and encourage competition and self-reliance. Collectivistic cultures like Taiwan, Colombia, China, Japan, Vietnam, and Peru value in-group identity over individual identity and value conformity to social norms of the in-group (Dsilva & Whyte, 1998). However, within the larger cultures, individuals will vary in the degree to which they view themselves as part of a group or as a separate individual, which is called self-construal. Independent self-construal indicates a perception of the self as an individual with unique feelings, thoughts, and motivations. Interdependent self-construal indicates a perception of the self as interrelated with others (Oetzel & Ting-Toomey, 2003). Not surprisingly, people from individualistic cultures are more likely to have higher levels of independent self-construal, and people from collectivistic cultures are more likely to have higher levels of interdependent self-construal. Self-construal and individualistic or collectivistic cultural orientations affect how people engage in facework and the conflict management styles they employ.

Self-construal alone does not have a direct effect on conflict style, but it does affect face concerns, with independent self-construal favoring self-face concerns and interdependent self-construal favoring other-face concerns. There are specific facework strategies for different conflict management styles, and these strategies correspond to self-face concerns or other-face concerns.

  • Accommodating. Giving in (self-face concern).
  • Avoiding. Pretending conflict does not exist (other-face concern).
  • Competing. Defending your position, persuading (self-face concern).
  • Collaborating. Apologizing, having a private discussion, remaining calm (other-face concern) (Oetzel, Garcia, & Ting-Toomey, 2008).

Research done on college students in Germany, Japan, China, and the United States found that those with independent self-construal were more likely to engage in competing, and those with interdependent self-construal were more likely to engage in avoiding or collaborating (Oetzel & Ting-Toomey, 2003). And in general, this research found that members of collectivistic cultures were more likely to use the avoiding style of conflict management and less likely to use the integrating or competing styles of conflict management than were members of individualistic cultures. The following examples bring together facework strategies, cultural orientations, and conflict management style: Someone from an individualistic culture may be more likely to engage in competing as a conflict management strategy if they are directly confronted, which may be an attempt to defend their reputation (self-face concern). Someone in a collectivistic culture may be more likely to engage in avoiding or accommodating in order not to embarrass or anger the person confronting them (other-face concern) or out of concern that their reaction could reflect negatively on their family or cultural group (other-face concern). While these distinctions are useful for categorizing large-scale cultural patterns, it is important not to essentialize or arbitrarily group countries together, because there are measurable differences within cultures. For example, expressing one’s emotions was seen as demonstrating a low concern for other-face in Japan, but this was not so in China, which shows there is variety between similarly collectivistic cultures. Culture always adds layers of complexity to any communication phenomenon, but experiencing and learning from other cultures also enriches our lives and makes us more competent communicators.

Handling Conflict Better

Conflict is inevitable and it is not inherently negative. A key part of developing interpersonal communication competence involves being able to effectively manage the conflict you will encounter in all your relationships. One key part of handling conflict better is to notice patterns of conflict in specific relationships and to generally have an idea of what causes you to react negatively and what your reactions usually are.

Identifying Conflict Patterns

Much of the research on conflict patterns has been done on couples in romantic relationships, but the concepts and findings are applicable to other relationships. Four common triggers for conflict are criticism, demand, cumulative annoyance, and rejection (Christensen & Jacobson, 2000). We all know from experience that criticism, or comments that evaluate another person’s personality, behavior, appearance, or life choices, may lead to conflict. Comments do not have to be meant as criticism to be perceived as such. If Gary comes home from college for the weekend and his mom says, “Looks like you put on a few pounds,” she may view this as a statement of fact based on observation. Gary, however, may take the comment personally and respond negatively back to his mom, starting a conflict that will last for the rest of his visit. A simple but useful strategy to manage the trigger of criticism is to follow the old adage “Think before you speak.” In many cases, there are alternative ways to phrase things that may be taken less personally, or we may determine that our comment doesn’t need to be spoken at all. I’ve learned that a majority of the thoughts that we have about another person’s physical appearance, whether positive or negative, do not need to be verbalized. Ask yourself, “What is my motivation for making this comment?” and “Do I have anything to lose by not making this comment?” If your underlying reasons for asking are valid, perhaps there is another way to phrase your observation. If Gary’s mom is worried about his eating habits and health, she could wait until they’re eating dinner and ask him how he likes the food choices at school and what he usually eats.

Demands also frequently trigger conflict, especially if the demand is viewed as unfair or irrelevant. It’s important to note that demands rephrased as questions may still be or be perceived as demands. Tone of voice and context are important factors here. When you were younger, you may have asked a parent, teacher, or elder for something and heard back “Ask nicely.” As with criticism, thinking before you speak and before you respond can help manage demands and minimize conflict episodes. As we discussed earlier, demands are sometimes met with withdrawal rather than a verbal response. If you are doing the demanding, remember a higher level of information exchange may make your demand clearer or more reasonable to the other person. If you are being demanded of, responding calmly and expressing your thoughts and feelings are likely more effective than withdrawing, which may escalate the conflict.

Cumulative annoyance is a building of frustration or anger that occurs over time, eventually resulting in a conflict interaction. For example, your friend shows up late to drive you to class three times in a row. You didn’t say anything the previous times, but on the third time you say, “You’re late again! If you can’t get here on time, I’ll find another way to get to class.” Cumulative annoyance can build up like a pressure cooker, and as it builds up, the intensity of the conflict also builds. Criticism and demands can also play into cumulative annoyance. We have all probably let critical or demanding comments slide, but if they continue, it becomes difficult to hold back, and most of us have a breaking point. The problem here is that all the other incidents come back to your mind as you confront the other person, which usually intensifies the conflict. You’ve likely been surprised when someone has blown up at you due to cumulative annoyance or surprised when someone you have blown up at didn’t know there was a problem building. A good strategy for managing cumulative annoyance is to monitor your level of annoyance and occasionally let some steam out of the pressure cooker by processing through your frustration with a third party or directly addressing what is bothering you with the source.

No one likes the feeling of rejection. Rejection can lead to conflict when one person’s comments or behaviors are perceived as ignoring or invalidating the other person. Vulnerability is a component of any close relationship. When we care about someone, we verbally or nonverbally communicate. We may tell our best friend that we miss them, or plan a home-cooked meal for our partner who is working late. The vulnerability that underlies these actions comes from the possibility that our relational partner will not notice or appreciate them. When someone feels exposed or rejected, they often respond with anger to mask their hurt, which ignites a conflict. Managing feelings of rejection is difficult because it is so personal, but controlling the impulse to assume that your relational partner is rejecting you, and engaging in communication rather than reflexive reaction, can help put things in perspective. If your partner doesn’t get excited about the meal you planned and cooked, it could be because he or she is physically or mentally tired after a long day. Concepts discussed in Chapter 2 “Communication and Perception” can be useful here, as perception checking, taking inventory of your attributions, and engaging in information exchange to help determine how each person is punctuating the conflict are useful ways of managing all four of the triggers discussed.

Interpersonal conflict may take the form of serial arguing , which is a repeated pattern of disagreement over an issue. Serial arguments do not necessarily indicate negative or troubled relationships, but any kind of patterned conflict is worth paying attention to. There are three patterns that occur with serial arguing: repeating, mutual hostility, and arguing with assurances (Johnson & Roloff, 2000). The first pattern is repeating, which means reminding the other person of your complaint (what you want them to start/stop doing). The pattern may continue if the other person repeats their response to your reminder. For example, if Marita reminds Kate that she doesn’t appreciate her sarcastic tone, and Kate responds, “I’m soooo sorry, I forgot how perfect you are,” then the reminder has failed to effect the desired change. A predictable pattern of complaint like this leads participants to view the conflict as irresolvable. The second pattern within serial arguments is mutual hostility, which occurs when the frustration of repeated conflict leads to negative emotions and increases the likelihood of verbal aggression. Again, a predictable pattern of hostility makes the conflict seem irresolvable and may lead to relationship deterioration. Whereas the first two patterns entail an increase in pressure on the participants in the conflict, the third pattern offers some relief. If people in an interpersonal conflict offer verbal assurances of their commitment to the relationship, then the problems associated with the other two patterns of serial arguing may be ameliorated. Even though the conflict may not be solved in the interaction, the verbal assurances of commitment imply that there is a willingness to work on solving the conflict in the future, which provides a sense of stability that can benefit the relationship. Although serial arguing is not inherently bad within a relationship, if the pattern becomes more of a vicious cycle, it can lead to alienation, polarization, and an overall toxic climate, and the problem may seem so irresolvable that people feel trapped and terminate the relationship (Christensen & Jacobson, 2000). There are some negative, but common, conflict reactions we can monitor and try to avoid, which may also help prevent serial arguing.

Two common conflict pitfalls are one-upping and mindreading (Gottman, 1994). is a quick reaction to communication from another person that escalates the conflict. If Sam comes home late from work and Nicki says, “I wish you would call when you’re going to be late” and Sam responds, “I wish you would get off my back,” the reaction has escalated the conflict. Mindreading is communication in which one person attributes something to the other using generalizations. If Sam says, “You don’t care whether I come home at all or not!” she is presuming to know Nicki’s thoughts and feelings. Nicki is likely to respond defensively, perhaps saying, “You don’t know how I’m feeling!” One-upping and mindreading are often reactions that are more reflexive than deliberate. Remember concepts like attribution and punctuation in these moments. Nicki may have received bad news and was eager to get support from Sam when she arrived home. Although Sam perceives Nicki’s comment as criticism and justifies her comments as a reaction to Nicki’s behavior, Nicki’s comment could actually be a sign of their closeness, in that Nicki appreciates Sam’s emotional support. Sam could have said, “I know, I’m sorry, I was on my cell phone for the past hour with a client who had a lot of problems to work out.” Taking a moment to respond mindfully rather than react with a knee-jerk reflex can lead to information exchange, which could deescalate the conflict.


Mindreading leads to patterned conflict, because we wrongly presume to know what another person is thinking.

Slipperroom – Mysterion the Mind Reader – CC BY-NC 2.0.

Validating the person with whom you are in conflict can be an effective way to deescalate conflict. While avoiding or retreating may seem like the best option in the moment, one of the key negative traits found in research on married couples’ conflicts was withdrawal, which as we learned before may result in a demand-withdrawal pattern of conflict. Often validation can be as simple as demonstrating good listening skills discussed earlier in this book by making eye contact and giving verbal and nonverbal back-channel cues like saying “mmm-hmm” or nodding your head (Gottman, 1994). This doesn’t mean that you have to give up your own side in a conflict or that you agree with what the other person is saying; rather, you are hearing the other person out, which validates them and may also give you some more information about the conflict that could minimize the likelihood of a reaction rather than a response.

As with all the aspects of communication competence we have discussed so far, you cannot expect that everyone you interact with will have the same knowledge of communication that you have after reading this book. But it often only takes one person with conflict management skills to make an interaction more effective. Remember that it’s not the quantity of conflict that determines a relationship’s success; it’s how the conflict is managed, and one person’s competent response can deescalate a conflict. Now we turn to a discussion of negotiation steps and skills as a more structured way to manage conflict.

Negotiation Steps and Skills

We negotiate daily. We may negotiate with a professor to make up a missed assignment or with our friends to plan activities for the weekend. Negotiation in interpersonal conflict refers to the process of attempting to change or influence conditions within a relationship. The negotiation skills discussed next can be adapted to all types of relational contexts, from romantic partners to coworkers. The stages of negotiating are prenegotiation, opening, exploration, bargaining, and settlement (Hargie, 2011).

In the prenegotiation stage, you want to prepare for the encounter. If possible, let the other person know you would like to talk to them, and preview the topic, so they will also have the opportunity to prepare. While it may seem awkward to “set a date” to talk about a conflict, if the other person feels like they were blindsided, their reaction could be negative. Make your preview simple and nonthreatening by saying something like “I’ve noticed that we’ve been arguing a lot about who does what chores around the house. Can we sit down and talk tomorrow when we both get home from class?” Obviously, it won’t always be feasible to set a date if the conflict needs to be handled immediately because the consequences are immediate or if you or the other person has limited availability. In that case, you can still prepare, but make sure you allot time for the other person to digest and respond. During this stage you also want to figure out your goals for the interaction by reviewing your instrumental, relational, and self-presentation goals. Is getting something done, preserving the relationship, or presenting yourself in a certain way the most important? For example, you may highly rank the instrumental goal of having a clean house, or the relational goal of having pleasant interactions with your roommate, or the self-presentation goal of appearing nice and cooperative. Whether your roommate is your best friend from high school or a stranger the school matched you up with could determine the importance of your relational and self-presentation goals. At this point, your goal analysis may lead you away from negotiation—remember, as we discussed earlier, avoiding can be an appropriate and effective conflict management strategy. If you decide to proceed with the negotiation, you will want to determine your ideal outcome and your bottom line, or the point at which you decide to break off negotiation. It’s very important that you realize there is a range between your ideal and your bottom line and that remaining flexible is key to a successful negotiation—remember, through collaboration a new solution could be found that you didn’t think of.

In the opening stage of the negotiation, you want to set the tone for the interaction because the other person will be likely to reciprocate. Generally, it is good to be cooperative and pleasant, which can help open the door for collaboration. You also want to establish common ground by bringing up overlapping interests and using “we” language. It would not be competent to open the negotiation with “You’re such a slob! Didn’t your mom ever teach you how to take care of yourself?” Instead, you may open the negotiation by making small talk about classes that day and then move into the issue at hand. You could set a good tone and establish common ground by saying, “We both put a lot of work into setting up and decorating our space, but now that classes have started, I’ve noticed that we’re really busy and some chores are not getting done.” With some planning and a simple opening like that, you can move into the next stage of negotiation.

There should be a high level of information exchange in the exploration stage. The overarching goal in this stage is to get a panoramic view of the conflict by sharing your perspective and listening to the other person. In this stage, you will likely learn how the other person is punctuating the conflict. Although you may have been mulling over the mess for a few days, your roommate may just now be aware of the conflict. She may also inform you that she usually cleans on Sundays but didn’t get to last week because she unexpectedly had to visit her parents. The information that you gather here may clarify the situation enough to end the conflict and cease negotiation. If negotiation continues, the information will be key as you move into the bargaining stage.

The bargaining stage is where you make proposals and concessions. The proposal you make should be informed by what you learned in the exploration stage. Flexibility is important here, because you may have to revise your ideal outcome and bottom line based on new information. If your plan was to have a big cleaning day every Thursday, you may now want to propose to have the roommate clean on Sunday while you clean on Wednesday. You want to make sure your opening proposal is reasonable and not presented as an ultimatum. “I don’t ever want to see a dish left in the sink” is different from “When dishes are left in the sink too long, they stink and get gross. Can we agree to not leave any dishes in the sink overnight?” Through the proposals you make, you could end up with a win/win situation. If there are areas of disagreement, however, you may have to make concessions or compromise, which can be a partial win or a partial loss. If you hate doing dishes but don’t mind emptying the trash and recycling, you could propose to assign those chores based on preference. If you both hate doing dishes, you could propose to be responsible for washing your own dishes right after you use them. If you really hate dishes and have some extra money, you could propose to use disposable (and hopefully recyclable) dishes, cups, and utensils.

In the settlement stage, you want to decide on one of the proposals and then summarize the chosen proposal and any related concessions. It is possible that each party can have a different view of the agreed solution. If your roommate thinks you are cleaning the bathroom every other day and you plan to clean it on Wednesdays, then there could be future conflict. You could summarize and ask for confirmation by saying, “So, it looks like I’ll be in charge of the trash and recycling, and you’ll load and unload the dishwasher. Then I’ll do a general cleaning on Wednesdays and you’ll do the same on Sundays. Is that right?” Last, you’ll need to follow up on the solution to make sure it’s working for both parties. If your roommate goes home again next Sunday and doesn’t get around to cleaning, you may need to go back to the exploration or bargaining stage.

Key Takeaways

  • Interpersonal conflict is an inevitable part of relationships that, although not always negative, can take an emotional toll on relational partners unless they develop skills and strategies for managing conflict.
  • Although there is no absolute right or wrong way to handle a conflict, there are five predominant styles of conflict management, which are competing, avoiding, accommodating, compromising, and collaborating.
  • Perception plays an important role in conflict management because we are often biased in determining the cause of our own and others’ behaviors in a conflict situation, which necessitates engaging in communication to gain information and perspective.
  • Culture influences how we engage in conflict based on our cultural norms regarding individualism or collectivism and concern for self-face or other-face.
  • We can handle conflict better by identifying patterns and triggers such as demands, cumulative annoyance, and rejection and by learning to respond mindfully rather than reflexively.
  • Of the five conflict management strategies, is there one that you use more often than others? Why or why not? Do you think people are predisposed to one style over the others based on their personality or other characteristics? If so, what personality traits do you think would lead a person to each style?
  • Review the example of D’Shaun and Rosa. If you were in their situation, what do you think the best style to use would be and why?
  • Of the conflict triggers discussed (demands, cumulative annoyance, rejection, one-upping, and mindreading) which one do you find most often triggers a negative reaction from you? What strategies can you use to better manage the trigger and more effectively manage conflict?

Ball State University, “Roommate Conflicts,” accessed June 16, 2001, .

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  • PMC7903201.1 ; 2021 Jan 28
  • ➤ PMC7903201.2; 2021 Mar 11

Interpersonal and communication skills development in nursing preceptorship education and training programmes: a scoping review protocol

Philip hardie.

1 UCD School of Nursing, Midwifery and Health Systems, University College Dublin, Belfield, Dublin 4, Ireland

Andrew Darley

2 UCD School of Medicine, University College Dublin, Belfield, Dublin 4, Ireland

Catherine Redmond

Attracta lafferty, suzi jarvis.

3 UCD Innovation Academy, University College Dublin, Belfield, Dublin 4, Ireland

Associated Data

No data are associated with this article.

Version Changes

Revised. amendments from version 1.

Many thanks to our reviewers for their suggested comments and suggestions. The article has been updated accordingly to reflect some of this feedback. Version 2 of this scoping review protocol includes minor additions including a broader definition of preceptorship and change in the narrative describing the interpersonal relationship between the preceptor and student nurse. The data extraction template has been modified to include additional items as suggested by the reviewers.

Peer Review Summary

The preceptorship model is an education-focused model for teaching and learning within a clinical environment in nursing. It formulates a professional educational relationship between a staff nurse (preceptor) and student nurse and is based on the provision of providing patient care. Preceptorship is widely acknowledged in the literature as a positive pedagogical approach in clinical nursing education in terms of knowledge and skill acquisition, confidence, and professional socialisation of undergraduate nursing students. However, the literature also widely reports negative interpersonal experiences within this professional educational relationship resulting in negative educational experiences and in some cases, negative patient experiences. Therefore, the authors set out to examine what teaching strategies are being implemented by nurse educators to encourage the development of interpersonal and communication skills in facilitating positive interpersonal relationships between the preceptor, nursing student and patient. This paper outlines the protocol for an exploratory scoping review that aims to systematically and comprehensively map out the available published and unpublished literature on the teaching strategies to develop interpersonal and communication skills in preceptorship education and training programmes. To conduct a systematic and comprehensive scoping review, the review will be guided by the Joanna Briggs Institute and Arksey & O’ Malley (2005) six-stage iterative framework, as well as PRISMA-ScR framework guidelines, to ensure the quality of the methodological and reporting approaches to the review. It is anticipated that the results of the scoping review will inform nurse educators on the current educational practices for developing interpersonal and communication skills in preceptorship education and training programmes and identify any educational practices that are worthy of further consideration for future research.


The preceptorship model is a teaching and learning strategy frequently employed internationally to educate undergraduate and graduate nursing students in the clinical environment. Some debate exists regarding the definition and function of preceptorship, for example Billay & Myrick’s (2008, pg. 259) defines preceptorship as:

“ an approach to the teaching and learning process within the context of the practice setting which allows students to develop self-confidence while increasing their competence as they become socialised into the profession of nursing ”.

Carlson (2013, pg.457) further defines preceptorship “ as a trusting relationship between preceptor and student.... where the preceptor strives to create a safe and meaningful interactive relationship with the student...... thus supporting the student’s ability to implement generalized theoretical knowledge into patient-centered problems ”. Another key function of a preceptorship not captured in the previous definitions is the preceptor’s role in the assessment of students’ competencies. Vae et al. , (2018, pg.13) states “ the students' learning process is dependent on high-quality assessment processes and feedback from preceptors permitting students to critically reflect on their practice and learn for that experience ”.

Acknowledging that up to 50% of undergraduate nursing curriculums take place in the clinical environment, the preceptorship model plays a pivotal role in the education of student nurses ( McSharry & Lathlean, 2017 ; NMBI, 2016a ; NMC, 2018 ). The preceptorship relationship is a purposeful short-term professional partnership in the practice setting between the preceptor (staff nurse) and a nursing student (preceptee) and is based on the provision of providing patient care. Hence, within the preceptorship model, there are three members: the preceptor, the student nurse, and the patient, forming a triadic professional relationship. This relationship provides opportunities for nursing students’ socialisation into nursing practice and helps to integrate theory into practice, under the guidance of the preceptor ( McSharry & Lathlean, 2017 ; Muir et al ., 2013 ; Ward & McComb, 2017 ). The Nursing and Midwifery Board of Ireland ( NMBI, 2016b ) states that effective interpersonal relationships are not only essential for the foundation of effective patient care but also a successful teaching and learning environment. Therefore, the quality and support within this relationship contribute significantly to nursing student’s socialisation into the nursing profession and their learning ( Ward & McComb, 2017 ) whilst also ensuring quality patient care and their satisfaction in their nursing care ( Suikkala et al ., 2020a ). Thus, the formation of a therapeutic interpersonal relationship between the preceptor/nursing student and patient is essential.

Kornhaber et al . (2016 pg. 537) define a therapeutic interpersonal relationship between the nurse and patient as:

“ a relationship which is perceived by patients to encompass caring, and supportive non-judgmental behaviour, embedded in a safe environment during an often-stressful period ”.

Typically, a positive therapeutic relationship portrays characteristics of good interpersonal competence with meaningful dialogue that displays warmth, friendliness, genuine interest, respect, and empathy, while at the same time responding to patients’ emotions and having a desire to provide support and care ( Dinç & Gastmans, 2013 ; Kornhaber et al ., 2016 ; Prip et al ., 2018 ). It is therefore essential that preceptors are proficient in these skills, which will enable them to provide patient-centered care, while also utilising teaching techniques such as role modelling, coaching and contextual questioning to facilitate the student’s learning ( McSharry, 2013 ). For this reason, there needs to be a strong educational and trustful professional relationship between the preceptor and student nurse, so that positive therapeutic interpersonal relationships can then be developed with patients. In light of the increasing complexity of healthcare delivery, the importance of effective interpersonal relationships between the preceptor, nursing students and patients has grown exponentially. The literature emphasises the benefits of effective interpersonal and communication skills but also highlights the consequences of negative interpersonal interactions. Effective interpersonal relations have been shown to play a pivotal role in building trusting relationships and creating a caring and welcoming environment in nursing ( Arnold & Boggs, 2020 ). This thereby improves communication between the preceptor, nursing student and patient, leading to person-centred care, patient satisfaction, patient empowerment and decreases adverse events among patients ( Suikkala et al ., 2020a ; Suikkala et al ., 2020b ). Effective interpersonal relations also facilitate the development of knowledge, skills acquisition, and theory-practice integrations for nursing students ( Irwin et al ., 2018 ; Ke et al ., 2017 ; Omer & Moola, 2019 ; Ward & McComb, 2017 ; Washington, 2013 ).

However, the literature to date also widely documents negative interpersonal relationships within this professional educational relationship and the clinical environment. Reports from both preceptors and nursing students exist regarding workplace incivilities such as rudeness, humiliation, anger, generational clashes, and inappropriate criticism from experienced preceptors ( Dyess & Sherman, 2009 ; Gardiner & Sheen 2016 ; Omer & Moola, 2019 ). These challenging experiences consequently result in a negative learning experience for the student and, in some cases, interpersonal conflict occurs due to a breakdown in the preceptorship relationship ( Hugo & Botma, 2019 ; McCloughen & Foster, 2018 ). Furthermore, it has been reported that displaying poor interpersonal skills, where there is a lack of emotional intelligence demonstrated by preceptors and student nurses, can result in negative feelings amongst patients, leading to a lack of trust and a possible breakdown in the relationship ( Holst et al ., 2017 ; Mukumbang & Adejumo, 2014 ). As educators, this is concerning to the authors, as fragmented relationships can have not only a negative impact on the student nurses’ learning experience but also on patient care ( Cho et al ., 2017 ; Suikkala et al ., 2018 ; Suikkala & Leino-Kilip, 2005 ).

As with any human skill, interpersonal and communication skills, also referred to as “soft skills” can be improved through conscious effort ( Moss, 2020 ). McConnell (2004, pg. 178) describes soft skills as “ those essential skills involved in dealing with and relating to other people, largely on a one-to-one basis ”. These include the ability to engage with others at a personal and professional level, and display levels of empathy towards the situation that others may be experiencing ( Grant & Goodman, 2019 ). This process stimulates feelings of support, comfort, and recognition in individuals ( Wright, 2007 ). Enhancement of interpersonal skills concerns several key components, including the individuals’ emotional intelligence, learning to recognise the uniqueness of everyone, empathising with the individual, learning to listen, effective communication, empowering others and building trust ( Grant & Goodman, 2019 ).

Teaching effective interpersonal and communication skills requires providing the relevant knowledge, as well as guiding and coaching learning to develop and enhance these skills. It takes time and experience to build effective interpersonal and communication skills, beginning with foundational skills, for example, knowing when to use open-ended and closed-ended questions. More advanced listening skills paired with sensitivity and empathy generate highly effective interpersonal relationships ( Pavord & Donnelly, 2015 ). Investing in developing preceptors’ interpersonal and communication skills is essential in maintaining good interpersonal relationships, an effective teaching environment and exemplary patient care. Preceptors not only have the responsibility of role modelling effective soft skills but also evaluating student nurses’ competencies in these skills as part of their clinical assessment document ( NMBI, 2016a ). Therefore, the inclusion of such skills is paramount in preceptorship education and training programmes. Preceptors bring their own distinctive set of communication skills, cultural influences, learning styles and life experiences that directly affect their ability to engage in effective interpersonal relationships ( Gardiner & Sheen, 2016 ). Nurse educators must build on preceptors’ strengths and experiences to enhance their interpersonal skills. A preceptor short of adequate interpersonal and communication skills may be able to facilitate positive interpersonal relationships with the nursing students and patients ( Martínez-Linares et al ., 2019 ). Interpersonal and communication skills are practical skills. Therefore, nursing educators need to adapt teaching strategies that involve activities which allow opportunities for active participation to develop such skills, e.g., experiential learning opportunities ( Reid-Searl et al ., 2017 ). Pedagogical approaches observed in the literature include simulation practices such as the use of puppets ( Reid-Searl et al ., 2017 ), standardised patients ( Lin et al ., 2013 ; Maclean et al ., 2017 ), real patients ( Perry et al ., 2013 ) and roleplay ( Jackson & Back, 2011 ; Pearson & McLafferty, 2011 ). Other methods observed included clinical placement ( Purdie et al ., 2008 ), group discussions ( Waugh et al ., 2014 ), online discussion ( Deering & Eichelberger, 2002 ), and audiotapes ( Sloan, 2003 ).

The existing evidence outlined provides an overview of the importance of interpersonal and communication skills, particularly in the context of a nursing preceptorship relationship. This literature highlights the need for active development of these skills in preceptorship education and training programmes. However, an initial inspection of the literature demonstrates that the focus of interpersonal and communication skills development centres around nurse-patient relationships and is predominantly completed as part of an undergraduate nursing programme. Given the importance of effective interpersonal and communication skills for preceptors in not only facilitating and guiding such skills among nursing students and the patients, the authors feel it is therefore worthwhile to systematically examine the literature to identify what teaching strategies are being implemented to develop interpersonal and communications skills among trainee preceptors (qualified nurses). It is also important to determine if trainee preceptors are being afforded the opportunity to specifically develop interpersonal and communication skills required to facilitate and guide the triadic preceptorship relationship between the nurse, student nurse and patient.

A scoping review protocol will outline the approach that will be adopted to determine the available literature on the pedagogical approaches to developing interpersonal and communication skills among nursing preceptors as part of their preceptorship education and training programme.

An exploratory scoping review approach will be employed to establish the nature and extent of knowledge relating to pedagogical approaches in preceptorship education and training programmes for the development of interpersonal and communications skills among trainee preceptors. Scoping reviews are used to map the concepts underpinning a research area and the primary sources and types of evidence available ( Arksey & O’Malley, 2005 ). Scoping reviews present a broad overview of the evidence concerning a topic and are beneficial when investigating areas that are emerging to clarify key concepts, definitions and identify gaps ( Lockwood et al ., 2019 ; Page & Moher, 2017 ). Scoping reviews are also implemented to examine the breadth of the literature, as well as the conduct of research on a specific topic to inform the design of future research studies ( Lockwood et al ., 2019 ).

To the best of the authors’ knowledge, there are currently no scoping reviews examining the educational practices of nurse educators in developing interpersonal and communication skills among trainee preceptors. Therefore, the findings of this exploratory review will contribute to existing literature regarding current pedagogy for interpersonal and communications skills development in preceptorship education and training programmes. The findings of this review may benefit the wider society, considering that interpersonal relationships of a preceptorship not only play an essential role in providing effective patient care, but also in facilitating nursing education in the clinical environment. It will also contribute a theoretical and empirical basis for the future development of pedagogical approaches that aim to enhance interpersonal and communication skills in preceptorship education and training programmes. The scoping review protocol introduced by Arksey & O’Malley (2005) that encompasses a six-stage iterative framework, as well as Peters et al . (2020) updated approach to conducting scoping reviews, will guide this review protocol and subsequent scoping review.

Aim and objectives

The overall aim of the scoping review is to identify, explore and map the literature regarding the development of interpersonal and communication skills for preceptors as part of their preceptorship education and training programme.

This will be achieved by addressing the following objectives:

  • 1. Determine the extent and nature of existing literature on the development of interpersonal and communication skills in preceptorship education and training programmes, so that the literature can be examined and mapped out, to identify any gaps.
  • 2. Examine current educational practices for the development of interpersonal and communication skills in preceptorship education and training programmes, to identify any educational practices that are worthy of further consideration for future research.

Stage 1: Identification of the scoping review research question

Peters et al . (2020) state that a clear scoping review question should incorporate elements of the PCC mnemonic (population, concept, and context). In this instance, qualified nursing staff (trainee preceptors/preceptors) are the relevant population, the concept is educational practices for interpersonal and communication skills development for supporting newly qualified nurses taking part in preceptorship programmes as well as undergraduate nursing students, and the context is preceptorship education and training programmes in acute/residential clinical settings. The research question that will therefore guide this scoping review is:

“ What is known about the development of interpersonal and communication skills amongst trainee nursing preceptors in preceptorship education and training programmes? ”

Stage 2: Identifying relevant studies

The Preferred Reporting Items for Systematic reviews and Meta-Analysis extension for Scoping Reviews (PRISMA-ScR) Checklist framework guidelines introduced by Tricco et al . (2018) will also guide the systematic scoping review. These guidelines are recommended to enhance transparency and quality of the completed scoping review ( McGowan et al ., 2020 ), and will help the researchers and the readers develop a greater understanding of the evidence. The research team will undertake a comprehensive search of the literature within the following databases:

  • CINAHL Nursing and Allied Health (CINAHL Plus)
  • SCOPUS (Elsevier Publications)
  • Academic Search Complete (EBSCOhost)
  • APA PsycINFO (American Psychological Association)
  • Education (ERIC)

Joanna Briggs Institute (JBI) three-step process for applying a search strategy will be implemented ( Peters et al ., 2020 ). Firstly, an initial search was deployed on CINAHL Plus, the identification of search terms was conceptually based on an oriented search to identify key text words used to address the major concepts which include population (preceptors), concept (interpersonal and communication skills development), and context (nursing preceptorship education and training programme). Synonyms for each of the concepts will also be included. Each search strategy will be adapted to the functionality of each database using specific Boolean operators, truncation markers, and MeSH headings where necessary to broaden the search and capture all literature that may use such terms. McGowan et al . (2020) state the input of a research librarian is invaluable when carrying out a scoping review; the authors worked with an expert university librarian (D.S.) in designing and refining the search strategy. Table 1 outlines the keywords for each search string.

As per the second stage of the JBI search strategy protocol, the same keywords from Table 1 will be searched in the remaining aforementioned databases. During this stage, the research team will review and ‘hand search’ the reference list to identify any additional relevant studies. Given that this is an exploratory scoping review, the authors are interested in identifying all literature including RCTs, exploratory studies and discussion papers. Therefore a “web search” of the grey literature will also be conducted using “OpenGrey” and “Google Scholar”. Specific educational policy publications by regulatory and professional bodies for preceptorship education and training programmes will also be searched to examine the focus of interpersonal and communication skills required for a preceptorship role. Table 2 outlines the search terms for grey literature and regulatory and professional bodies for preceptorship education and training programmes.

Stage 3: Study selection

Each search conducted will be systematically documented (date, search terms, results per string) and saved by two independent authors (PH, AD), with the findings of the searches compared and then imported into Mendeley (1.19.6 / 2020), a bibliographic reference manager, where any duplicates of literature will be removed before the initial screening of title and extract is divided out and screened by all of the authors. Covidence screening and data extraction software tool ( ) will be utilised by the authors for screening. Each article will be required to be approved by two independent screeners before either being included or excluded in the review. A pilot testing of articles (n=50) using Covidence software package and inclusion and exclusion criteria will be undertaken by the authors to ensure consistency of the methodology adopted in the selection process ( Peters et al ., 2020 ). Full text screening will then be carried out on all articles that meet the inclusion criteria during the initial screening round by two independent authors (PH, CR). For any articles in which a disagreement may arise a third independent author (AL) known as the “tie-breaker” will further review the article against the inclusion criteria to settle the difference of opinion. The number of articles identified, screened, assessed for eligibility, and included in the review will be captured using the Covidence software package. A PRISMA flow diagram will be created to ensure transparency of reporting, decisions for the exclusion of studies permitting replication and comparison of any further studies.

The inclusion and exclusion criteria, highlighted in Table 3 , will be developed through an iterative process based on the PCC elements of the review question, plus a specification of the types of studies that have addressed the scoping review question and discussions amongst the authors ( McKenzie et al ., 2020 ). The primary author will record any changes. All authors will utilise and adhere to its criteria during the screening process to ensure consistency.

Stage 4: Data charting

In this stage, a data extraction form will be created by the lead author (PH) ( Table 4 ) based on JBI (2020) data charting form, mapping it with the objectives and research question of the scoping review ( Peters et al ., 2020 ) and piloted on two articles by all authors. Any changes to the chart will be documented and reported in the final scoping review for transparency in the reporting.

Stage 5: Collating, summarising and reporting the results

Each data charting form will be logged electronically using Microsoft Excel to capture relevant information for each study and will be available for all members of the research team via a shared drive. All authors will discuss the data before a descriptive analysis commences. As recommended by Peters et al . (2020) , the analysis of data extracted should not involve any more than descriptive analysis to achieve the desired outcomes of a scoping review. Therefore, a narrative report will be produced, using a deductive thematic analysis approach summarising the extracted data concerning the objectives and scoping review question, for example, the pedagogy adopted for interpersonal and communication skills development and the impact of such training on trainee preceptors. Identification of areas in which a gap in the literature exists will also be reported. Quality appraisal of studies will not be conducted, as this review aims to explore the general scope of research conducted in the field of interpersonal and communication skills development in preceptorship education and training programmes and identify current pedagogical practices implemented to contribute a theoretical and empirical basis for the future development of preceptorship education and training programmes.

Stage 6: Consultation and dissemination

Initial findings from the scoping review will be presented to several stakeholders. The primary author (PH) will disseminate the results of the review with local academic networks within the authors’ place of work (third level institution) and associated clinical settings. The author will specifically report the findings to Clinical Placement Coordinators (CPC), who typically develop and facilitate preceptorship education and training days in the clinical settings in Ireland. The primary author will also share the results at the Clinical Skills Network of Ireland in which he is a stakeholder to reach a national targeted audience. The authors will engage with these groups to share and discuss our findings and interpretations to capture their perspective on the evidence identified. The primary author also aims to deliver an oral or poster presentation at National and International conferences such as the International Nursing & Midwifery Research and Education Conference, scheduled for March 2022. Finally, the authors aim to publish the scoping review findings in a peer-reviewed journal for a wider communication of the results. All data generated and analysed during the scoping review will be included in the published scoping review article; including search results, list of included studies, data extraction spreadsheets and final results, to ensure transparency and reproducibility of the review.

Study status

This study is at Stage 2 – a preliminary search of the literature has been conducted and the software packages Mendeley and Covidence have been trialled.


This scoping review protocol has been designed in line with the latest literature and evidence ( Arksey & O’Malley’s, 2005 ; Peters et al ., 2020 ; Tricco et al ., 2018 ) to create and perform a systematic scoping review. The distinguishing features of a scoping review will permit the authors to answer the specified research question, applying a systematic and evidence-based approach to identify the current knowledge on educational practices for the development of interpersonal and communication skills as part of preceptorship education and training programmes. It will also enable the authors to identify gaps in our knowledge base in this field which could justify new research and also inform the design, conduct and reporting of future research.

While this scoping review will not formally evaluate the quality of evidence available, it will provide a comprehensive overview of the available literature that will inform the researcher on current educational practices for the development of interpersonal and communication skills as part of preceptorship education and training programmes. This knowledge may identify the gaps in training that are contributing to interpersonal conflicts in preceptorship relationships that are widely reported throughout the literature. Only articles in English will be utilised; however, there will be no restrictions on the country of origin where the publications were produced, which should therefore provide a diverse range of opinions, experiences and cultural contexts. Following the open peer-review process and achieved approval, the authors will commence the systematic scoping review.

Data availability


Diarmuid Stokes, UCD Librarian

[version 2; peer review: 3 approved]

Funding Statement

The author(s) declared that no grants were involved in supporting this work.

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Reviewer response for version 1

Karen poole.

1 Faculty of Health and Medical Sciences, School of Health Sciences, University Of Surrey, Guildford, UK

Thank you for inviting me to review this protocol. The authors make a compelling case for conducting a scoping review on the pedagogic practices used to develop communication and interpersonal skills in nurse preceptors. This protocol draws upon the most recent guidance for the conduct of scoping reviews, with a clear and well written account of the planned search strategies, data extraction and dissemination plans. 

In terms of "context" scope, it may be helpful to clarify if you are including the educational preparation of preceptors for supporting Newly Qualified Nurses taking part in preceptorship programmes as well as undergraduate nursing programmes.

I agree with Elisabeth Carlson (first reviewer) regarding the difficulty of applying the concept of the therapeutic relationship to the preceptor and nursing student. There are characteristics that are relevant, but I am not sure whether it is a faithful representation of this concept. You may wish to consider a minor revision to this paragraph? Preceptors have a critical role in shaping students' clinical experiences, but are also responsible for assessing their developmental progress both formatively and summatively (often in a placement of short duration). As such, there is a complex relationship between preceptors and nursing students and the use of effective communication and interpersonal skills (in both parties) is essential in negotiating learning opportunities and navigating safe honest formative feedback/feed-forward that enables students to optimise learning in practice placements through their programmes.

Here are a couple of minor suggestions for inclusion in your plans for data extraction:

  • capture of "nursing field" (learning disability, mental health, child, adult).
  • capture of whether the educational strategies include both preceptors and students or preceptors alone.

This scoping review has the potential to make an important contribution in shaping how preceptors are prepared and support the future nursing workforce.

Is the study design appropriate for the research question?

Is the rationale for, and objectives of, the study clearly described?

Are sufficient details of the methods provided to allow replication by others?

Are the datasets clearly presented in a useable and accessible format?

Not applicable

Reviewer Expertise:

Education of Healthcare Professionals, Integrated Programmatic Assessment, Self-regulated Learning, Teaching Evidence-based Practice, Cancer Care.

I confirm that I have read this submission and believe that I have an appropriate level of expertise to confirm that it is of an acceptable scientific standard.

The authors would like to thank you for your comments on our scoping review protocol and for your suggestions.

We have responded to your comments below:

  • A broader definition of preceptorship will be provided which will be more aligned to the diverse range of roles and responsibilities associated with a nursing preceptorship.
  • We acknowledge the therapeutic relationship better describes the relationship between the nurse and patient and have amended the text accordingly.
  • The “context” of the scope has been updated to include the educational preparation of preceptors for supporting Newly Qualified Nurses taking part in preceptorship programmes as well as undergraduate nursing programmes

Edel McSharry

1 Department of Nursing, Health Science and Disability Studies, National University of Ireland Galway, Galway, Ireland

2 St. Angela's College Lough Gill Sligo, Lough Gill, Ireland

The preceptor holds a dual role of practitioner and teacher. The preceptor must utilise complex teaching strategies to the foster the student’s ability to practise nursing competently and compassionately. One of the core competencies inherent in all nursing programmes is the student's ability to communicate effectively and develop positive professional interpersonal relationship with both patients and other health care professionals. It is essential that the preceptor trainee is proficient in these skills in order to be able to provide patient centered care and utilise the teaching techniques of role modelling, coaching and contextual questioning to facilitate the student’s learning. Students often find these skills a challenge to learn and preceptors often undervalue their own professional interpersonal communication skills ( Mallik et al 2009 1 , Mc Sharry 2013 2 ).

Preceptorship preparation varies in length and content and some studies have reported that preceptors do not feel adequately prepared for their teaching and assessment role. This scoping review focusing on interpersonal and communication skill development of preceptor trainees will contribute to existing literature that can inform the development of preparation programmes both nationally and internationally. It has the potential to contribute to pedological approaches that enhance both preceptor trainee skills and student’s interpersonal and communication skills. Any enhancement in these skills are can only positively contribute to the provision of quality person- centered care. The protocol is clearly written with well-defined aim and objectives, inclusion and exclusion criteria and appropriate search terms. It aligns wells to recent writings on methodological guidance for the conduct of scoping reviews.

I have 3 suggestions that the authors may find useful in refining this protocol:

  • Page 3 The definition of preceptorship offered is valuable and constitutes many of the attributes of the preceptorship model. Carlson (2013) definition develops on this definition and may be more appropriate. The preceptorship model in the Irish context further involves an assessment role which is not specified or encapsulated within these definitions as they are presented.
  • Page 3 I would not entirely agree the preceptor- preceptee relationship is a therapeutic interpersonal relationship. This type of relationship is associated with a long term mentor- student relationship. The preceptor has to ensure the student gains the competencies required to pass the placement and therefore its focus is educational. The paper already sets out that the preceptor relationship is purposeful and short-term therefore I would suggest preceptorship involves a reciprocal student -preceptor relationship based on equality and mutual respect where the student’s confidence is fostered( Mc Sharry & Lathlean 2017 3 ).
  •  Page 3 and Page 4 there is a sentence that is repeated at the beginning of the paragraph at the bottom of page 3 and at the beginning of the paragraph on page 4. This repetition is not required and just requires some editing.

clinical education, digital learning, internationalisation

Elisabeth Carlson

1 Department of Care Science, Faculty of Health and Society, Malmö University, Malmö, Sweden

The training and preparation of preceptors vary over the world. Some programs or rather initiatives are merely a couple of days or even hours long while others are full academic credit bearing courses at universities. This implies that studies on preceptor preparation is a subject always worthy of investigation. The protocol is well written, easy to follow and uses current methodological references. I applaud the authors that despite their educational context being Ireland, the protocol is written in such a way that it is easily transferable to an international context. I have three minor  comments or rather thoughts that might be useful.  

Keywords: Alphabetical order

Page 3 Definition (the quote): While this is very true and a frequently used definition, I would also recommend the more elaborated definition to be found in CARLSON E. (2013) Precepting and symbolic interactionism – a theoretical look

at preceptorship during clinical practice. Journal of Advanced Nursing 69(2), 457– 464. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2648.2012.06047.x 1

Page 3: I am not quite sure if I agree that there is a therapeutic relationship between preceptor an nursing student. I would say there should be a strong educational and trustful professional relationship which in turn enables therapeutic interpersonal relationships with patients.

Higher Health Care Education, Learning theories, Preceptorship, Clinical Training, Methodology, Interprofessional Collaboration and learning, Educational models.

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5: Leadership/Roles/Problem Solving

5.1: leadership and small group communication.

Achievement-oriented leaders: Leaders who strive for excellence and set challenging goals, constantly seeking improvement and exhibiting confidence that group members can meet their high expectations

Coercive power: Power that comes from the ability of a group member to provide a negative incentive; for example, “vote for me, or else…”

Designated leaders: Leaders who are officially recognized in their leadership role; may be appointed or elected by people inside or outside the group; especially successful when they are sought out by others to fulfill and then are accepted in leadership roles

Directive leaders: Leaders who help provide psychological structure for their group members by clearly communicating expectations, keeping a schedule and agenda, providing specific guidance as group members work toward the completion of their task, and taking the lead on setting and communicating group rules and procedures

Emergent leaders: Leaders who gain status and respect through engagement with the group and its task and are turned to by others as a resource when leadership is needed

Expert power: Power that comes from knowledge, skill, or expertise that a group member possesses and other group members do not.

Information power: Power that comes from a person’s ability to access information that comes through informal channels and well-established social and professional networks

Leader: A group role that is associated with a high-status position and may be formally or informally recognized by group members

Leadership: The complexity of beliefs, communication patterns, and behaviors that influence the functioning of a group and move toward the completion of its task

Legitimate power: Power that flows from the officially recognized position, status, or title, of a group member

Participative leaders: Leaders who work to include group members in the decision-making process by soliciting and considering opinions and suggestions

Referent power: Power that comes from the attractiveness, likeability, and charisma of the group member

Reward power: Power that comes from a group member to provide a positive incentive as a compliance-gaining strategy

Supportive leaders: Leaders who show concern for their followers’ needs and emotions

5.2: Group Member Roles

Aggressor:  Unproductive role in which someone exhibits negative behaviors such as contradicting ideas, attacking others, competing at the expense of the group, and being outspoken to the point of distraction

Airhead:   A person who skirts their responsibilities by claiming ignorance when they actually understand or intentionally perform poorly on a task so that other group members question their intellectual abilities to handle other tasks

Blocker: An unproductive role that intentionally or unintentionally keeps things from getting done in the group

Central negative:   This view argues against most of the ideas and proposals discussed in the group and often emerges as a result of a leadership challenge during group formation

Doormat:  Unproductive role in which a person is chronically submissive to the point that it hurts the group’s progress

Expediter:   A task-related role that functions to keep the group on track toward completing its task by managing the agenda and setting and assessing goals in order to monitor the group’s progress

Gatekeeper:   A task role that manages the flow of conversation in a group in order to achieve an appropriate balance so that all group members get to participate in a meaningful way

Harmonizer:   A maintenance role played by group members who help manage the various types of group conflict that emerge during group communication

Information provider:   A task role that includes sharing information with the rest of the group; more evenly shared than other roles because all group members share new ideas, initiate discussion of new topics and contribute their own relevant knowledge and experiences

Information seeker:   A task role that includes asking for more information, elaboration, or clarification on items relevant to the group’s task

Insecure Compliment Seeker:   A disruptive role characterized by behavior of a person who wants to know that s/he is valued by the group and seeks recognitions that is often not task related

Interpreter:   A maintenance role that helps manage the diversity of a group by mediating intercultural conflict, articulating common ground between different people, and generally creating a climate where difference is seen as an opportunity rather than as something to be feared

Joker:   A disruptive role played a group member who consistently uses sarcasm, plays pranks, tells jokes, which distracts from the overall functioning of the group

Monopolizer:   A group member who makes excessive verbal contributions, preventing equal participation by group members

Recorder:   A task role that takes notes on the discussion and activities that occur during a group meeting; the only role essentially limited to one person at a time

Self-centered roles:   Roles that divert attention from the task to the group member exhibiting the behavior

Self-Confessor:   A disruptive role played by a group member who tries to use group meetings as therapy sessions for issues not related to the group’s task

Social-emotional leader:   A leader who performs a variety of maintenance roles and is generally someone who is well liked by the other group members and whose role behaviors complement but don’t compete with the task leader

Supporter:   A maintenance role characterized by communication behaviors that encourage other group members and provide emotional support as needed

Task Leader:   A person who has high group status because of maturity, problem-solving abilities, knowledge, and/or leadership experience and skills and functions to help the group complete its task

Tension Releaser:   A maintenance role usually played by someone who is naturally funny and sensitive to the personalities of the group and the dynamics of any given situation and who uses these qualities to manage the frustration level of the group

Unproductive roles:   Negative roles in group communication that make it difficult for the group to make progress; include blocker, withdrawer, aggressor, and doormat

Withdrawer: An unproductive role in which a person mentally or physically removes themselves from group activities and only participates when forced

5.3: Problem Solving and Decision Making in Groups

Baby Boomers: The group born in the US between 1946 and 1964; the largest and most predominant generation in the current workforce

Brainstorming: A quick generation of ideas, free of evaluation; an idea-generating and/or decision-making method

Consensus rule: A decision-making technique in which all members of a group must agree on the same decision

Desired situation: A common component of a problem that may include a vague idea that will improve the undesirable situation

Dominant group members: Group members that act more independently and directly, initiate conversations, take up more space, make more direct eye contact, seek leadership positions, and take control over decision-making processes

Emotional group members: Group members who are creative, playful, independent, unpredictable, and expressive, which leads them to make rash decisions resist group norms or decision-making structures, and switch often from a relational to task focus

Friendly group members: Group members who find a balance between talking and listening, don’t try to win at the expense of other members, are flexible but not weak, and value democratic decision-making

Generation X: The group of people born in the US between 1965 and 1981; the first generation to see technology (cell phones, Internet) make its way into classrooms and daily life; have a greater appreciation for and understanding of diversity

Generation Y: The group of people born in the US between 1982 and 2000; also called millennials; have never experienced a time without technology such as computers and cell phones

Group familiarity with the problem: A characteristic of a problem that impacts the amount of background research a group needs to do in order to solve the problem effectively; more familiarity requires less background research

Group member interest in a problem: A characteristic of a problem that impacts the level of engagement with the problem-solving process and the level of investment in finding a quality solution

Instrumental group members: Group members who are emotionally neutral, objective, analytical, task-oriented, and committed followers, which leads them to work hard and contribute to the group’s decision-making as long as it is orderly and follows agreed-on rules

Majority rule: A decision-making technique in which a majority must agree before a decision is made

Minority rule: A decision-making technique in which a designated authority or expert has final say over a decision and may or may not consider the input of other group members

Need for solution acceptance: A characteristic of problem solving that suggests groups must consider how many people the decision will affect and how much “buy-in” from others the group needs in order for their solution to be successfully implemented

Nominal group technique: A technique that guides decision making through a four-step process that includes idea generation and evaluation and seeks to elicit equal contributions from all group members

Number of possible solutions: A characteristic of a problem that suggests there are usually multiple ways to solve a problem or complete a task; some problems have more potential solutions than others

Obstacles between undesirable and desirable situations: A common component of a problem that stands in the way between the current situation and the group’s goal of addressing it

Problem question: A question that guides that group as it generates possible solutions

Problem statement: A single sentence that summarizes the problem

Silent Generation: The group born in the US between 1925 and 1942; the smallest generation in today’s workforce due to retirement or other reasons

Six hats method of thinking: A method of decision-making that helps people avoid habitual ways of thinking by allowing group members to play different roles and see a problem or decision from multiple points of view

Submissive group members: Group members that are reserved, contribute to the group only when asked, avoid eye contact, and leave personal needs and thoughts unvoiced or give into the suggestions of others

Task difficulty: A characteristic of a problem that creates more complexity in a problem

Undesirable situation: A common component of a problem; undesirable situations present problems

Unfriendly group members: Group members who are disagreeable, indifferent, withdrawn, and selfish, which leads them to either not invest in decision-making or direct it in their own interest rather than in the interest of the group

Interpersonal & Small Group Communication Copyright © 2023 by Weber State University is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License , except where otherwise noted.

Apply our problem solving method

Learn problem solving skills: interpersonal communication styles.

  • Learn to recognize differences in communication styles
  • Learn how interpersonal communication styles can affect relational outcomes.
  • Learn how to use the Interpersonal Circle to adapt your interpersonal communication style to the situation.

“ They may forget what you said, but they will never forget how you made them feel. ” —Carl Buechner

“ The most important single ingredient in the formula of success is knowing how to get along with people .” —Theodore Roosevelt

Do you notice that you act in different ways around certain people? Perhaps you act inhibited around your advisor but act self-assured around your students. Maybe you wish you could be as sociable with your labmates as you are so easily around your friends. These descriptors: inhibited, sociable, assured, and deferent are all examples of interpersonal communication styles (Kiesler, 1982). 

This module is designed to address the interpersonal communication styles that you bring to a communication interaction. The more you know about interpersonal communication styles, the more you can deliberately choose to use a style or not, depending on the situation.

The concepts of interpersonal communication styles and personality overlap, but they do not mean the same thing. People often say “that’s just the way I am.” However, interpersonal communication styles are actually changeable and more in your control than you might think.

Think back to a time in which you communicated with someone and by virtue of the initial interaction you developed a new approach that you tried the next time. For example, perhaps when talking with your advisor you were reserved and didn’t speak up when someone was getting recognition for your work; the next time the topic of work credit came up you were more assertive and spoke up for yourself. 

The fact that you are able to change your approach, and essentially the impression you make (see The Impression You Make ), are different from personality. Personality is more steady and consistent and is most often viewed in terms of traits—a stable, enduring quality that a person shows in most situations (i.e., who we are)—rather than a behavior (i.e., how we act). [See Your Personality and Preferences for more.]

One of the interesting things about interpersonal communication styles is that they can be specific to a situation (e.g., you are different around a faculty member) or defined by how you behave in most communication situations (e.g., you are sociable with most people). You can choose when to use the interpersonal communication style that best serves you in the situation. 

Over time, recognizing and selecting which interpersonal communication approach you wish to use in a particular instance will become easier. With practice the ability to choose will help you break the patterns that don’t work for you in certain situations.

There are many different approaches to defining interpersonal communication styles. Here we describe a couple of models that have received ample research support. We focus on the Interpersonal Circle and its accompanying theory, “Complementarity.” 

The Interpersonal Circle

Interpersonal theorists (Carson, 1969; Kiesler, 1983; Leary, 1957) created the Interpersonal Circle to explain the ways in which people relate to each other interpersonally. The model is based on a system of similarity and dissimilarity and is meant to explain and predict the ways in which two different people may interact in a given situation. 

In this model, 16 interpersonal styles are positioned around a circle. Interpersonal theory has been applied both to traits and behaviors. Here we discuss its applications to real-time communication exchanges of individuals in a dyadic interaction.


The model represents a system that charts interpersonal communication across two dimensions: Power and Affiliation. In the model, the Power (Dominance) axis runs vertically. On this dimension, those interpersonal styles positioned directly across from each other are viewed as complementary to each other. 

In practice, this would mean that in a given interpersonal interaction, individuals who act in a dissimilar manner on the Power axis would likely get along well with each other. For example, if one individual were to act in a dominant manner, then the behavioral response that would likely lead to the best outcome would be for the other person to respond with deference. This makes sense if you consider how the alternative might play out—that is, two people competing for dominance.

The Affiliation axis runs horizontally. Contrary to the Power dimension, similarity is complementary on the Affiliation dimension. For example, if one person acts in a friendly manner, then the responses that would likely predict the best outcome would be for the second person to respond in an equally friendly, warm or sociable manner.

There are multiple reasons why the interpersonal circle is relevant to your life. Using the interpersonal circle is a relatively simple way to identify your own tendencies toward particular styles with certain individuals. There is evidence that those who view the social world using a structure similar to that of the interpersonal circle report fewer interpersonal problems and higher levels of satisfaction with life, self-confidence, and self-liking.


The powerful theory that arose from the Interpersonal Circle is complementarity. Complementarity is the idea that individuals interact in a manner that elicits a restricted class of behaviors (e.g., dominance requests submission and friendliness invites similar behaviors) and you have the choice to either act in a complementary fashion or not. 

The degree to which another individual complements those behaviors has some predictive utility for measuring how well the relationship will go. The deliberate choice to complement or not is called Complementarity.

The theory suggests that certain behaviors “pull” particular responses from the other person. Being friendly generally elicits friendliness from the other person. Complementary behaviors on the friendliness (affiliation) axis generally indicate better communication and mutual liking. 

If you as a student approach a colleague or a professor in a friendly manner, you are more likely to get a friendly response. If a faculty member is friendly in your exchange and you respond in a chilly manner (maybe you had a bad day or you are unhappy with the professor), the (anticomplementary) interaction will probably be uncomfortable and set a negative tone.

Another example of complementarity could be that your professor treats his students in a dominant manner. This dominance sends the message that the professor sees himself as having power and that he expects his students to submit to his behaviors. If you understand this dynamic and view his interpersonal behavior in this manner, you can make a deliberate choice to complement this behavior or not complement this behavior.

In this case, complementing would mean that you validate the professor’s interpersonal message by being more deferent. Not complementing might mean responding in an assured manner by communicating that you have opinions or knowledge about the topic, work, etc. and you will not merely submit to the professor’s interpersonal message. 

Neither response is inherently bad, but each response above carries consequences with it. If you submit, you may not have your voice heard or you may not have important decisions go the way you’d like.  Implying to this professor that you consider yourself to be on the same level as they are may not go well.

However, if you do not submit, it might lead to a power struggle with your professor, which is never an ideal situation for any graduate student. The point is to recognize the interpersonal messages people send and to make deliberate decisions about when to complement those messages and when not to do so.

Be aware: if you are redefining your interpersonal approach with an individual who is used to you acting in a particular manner, there might be a period of discomfort, or even backlash, as they adjust to your new way of conducting yourself. Although the time of adjustment is often uncomfortable, it is quite normal. Stick with it, if that is your preferred path.

Consider the example of a professor who spouts orders, asserts himself as dominating, and expects his students to be subservient. He considers his research assistants to be personal assistants and sends them on personal errands and expects them to be available at all hours of the day and night.

Which graduate student response would be complementary to his behavior?

  • A. Submitting by way of obeying all orders and never asserting yourself.
  • B. Responding in an assured manner by communicating that you have opinions, knowledge, and boundaries, and you will not merely submit to the professor’s interpersonal message.

Complementarity occurs when individuals interact in a manner that elicits a restricted class of behaviors (e.g., dominance requests submission and friendliness invites similar behaviors) and you have the choice to either act in a complementary fashion or not.

Interesting question for you: What if this professor is a woman? Would you have a different emotional reaction? We are all socialized to have gender role expectations. Therefore, it would not be surprising to be even more critical of a woman with a dominant interaction style.

Think of someone with whom you have trouble communicating. Once you have that person in mind, use the interpersonal circle to identify that individual’s interpersonal communication style. 

How would you choose to complement or not complement their style? Is there anything you want to change about how you would approach your communication with that person? How does the model help you think about this?

Marissa works in a lab with three labmates. One labmate, Liang, treats Marissa as if she were the lab mom. He asks her to order supplies, to clean up, to order lunch for the group during working meetings, etc. 

Marissa usually complies with Liang’s requests. That is, she usually complements Liang’s dominant interpersonal communication style with a submissive interpersonal communication style. 

However, she wants very badly to change her dynamic with Liang so he stops bossing her around. The following interaction is one in which Marissa deliberately chooses not to complement Liang’s interpersonal style in order to change their interpersonal dynamic. 

Remember, when thinking interpersonally, the way in which you deliver the message through nonverbals and the words you choose are equally if not more important than the content of the discussion. Let’s see how Marissa does.

LIANG: [walking up to Marissa, while she’s working] Marissa, we are out of toner and paper and I need to print these results. Can you go to the department secretary and see if they have some we can use and then order more. [Liang’s interpersonal communication style is best defined as dominant: he is making demands and bossing Marissa around]

MARISSA: [continuing to work] Sorry, Liang, I’m busy. You’re going to have to go yourself. [now making eye contact with Liang]. Also, I think it’s time someone else in the lab besides me orders supplies. If you need help figuring it out, I am happy to help, but I’m relieving myself of the responsibility of ordering things for everyone. I have a lot of work to do before I graduate and I’ve done my fair share—it’s someone else’s turn. [Marissa’s interpersonal communication style here is assured].

LIANG: [caught off guard and looking perplexed] What is this? Are you upset because I didn’t say “please” and “thank you”? [Liang meets Marissa’s assured interpersonal message with a stronger form of dominance]

MARISSA: [stopping what she’s doing, turning to face Liang and deliberately using a calm voice that does not convey hostility]. Liang, a “please” or a “thank you” would have been nice, but this isn’t a reaction in the moment. I’ve given it some thought and I have decided it’s time someone else takes care of ordering things around here. [Marissa continues to use an Assured interpersonal communication style and stays on message]

LIANG: [now clearly frustrated] We’ll see how this goes. I don’t have time for this [Liang walks away]

MARISSA: I don’t either, Liang. That’s the point.

Let’s debrief:

Marissa deliberately chose to not complement Liang’s dominant interpersonal communication style, both in the words she chose (e.g., I have decided it’s time someone else takes care of ordering things around here.) and the nonverbals she conveyed (e.g., making eye contact instead of staring down at her work). 

In the face of Liang’s persistence in expecting that she did what he wanted, Marissa stuck to her message while also communicating that she wasn’t looking for a hostile confrontation.

There are some elements of this interaction that would likely play out in most similar situations:

  • When people send an interpersonal message that is not validated by the other person, they usually try to send the message again, only this time with more intensity. Liang did this by becoming even more dominant and attacking Marissa on an interpersonal level, when he said, “is this because you didn’t get a “please” or “thank you”?
  • When Liang began to send a stronger dominant message, Marissa likely felt uncomfortable. When faced with this type of discomfort, most people give up and return to submissiveness or, conversely, they meet the other person’s attempt at dominance with hostility or a dominant message of their own—essentially, they tell the person, “you are not in charge,” but they do so in a hostile or confrontational way. Marissa anticipates this and stays on message while also communicating that she is not looking for a hostile confrontation.
  • Marissa was also very effective at keeping the interaction in the “here and now” instead of talking about past incidents.
  • Marissa also used “I” statements such as “I can’t do this” and “I’ve made a decision.” Many people unintentionally sabotage their interaction by putting things on other people by making statements like, “you’re bossy” or “you just want to boss me around.” These types of accusations are almost impossible to prove in the moment and usually turn into an argument. By avoiding these types of statements, Marissa avoids a whole other area of interaction that would most likely turn into an argument.

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Graham, K., Mawritz, M., Dust, S., Greenbaum, R., & Ziegert, J. (2019). Too many cooks in the kitchen: The effects of dominance incompatibility on relationship conflict and subsequent abusive supervision. The Leadership Quarterly, 30( 3), 351–364.

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On Speaking Up: A Conference Experience

Confronting a male colleague with contradictory findings at a conference.

Stubbornness and Tenacity

Highlights the obstacles faced when trying to have research reviewed by the advisor and emphasizes the steps necessary to make adequate progress in the program.

Critical Mass

Captures the annoyance of male colleagues making sexist assumptions and the challenges with conference travel as a female graduate student.

Persuading an Advisor

Suggestions for defining research.

I Have Not Figured Out How to Say "No"

Emphasizes the challenge with saying no, but the importance of learning to do so.

Asserting Yourself in the Face of Authority

The importance of standing up for yourself.

Paths of Family Planning and Different Options Along the Way

How a flexible schedule as a professor made it possible to have a family and a career.

Proactive Approach and Adapting Environments

How to adapt experimental methods to match a lifestyle.

An Arizona State University project, supported by the National Science Foundation under grants 0634519, 0910384 and 1761278

Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation. © 2021  Career WISE. All rights reserved. Privacy | Legal

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Communication in IT: Why Soft Skills Matter

Three IT professionals using active listening and other soft skills at a presentation.

If you’re working toward a job writing code or managing cybersecurity for an organization, you’ve likely explored the technical skills you’ll need to succeed. But while tech skills are essential, there’s also a growing focus on the value of soft skills, such as communication, to break into the tech field .

“Not only are soft skills important , I think they’re more important than technical skills,” said Laurel Schneider , an adjunct information technology (IT) instructor at Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU). “I’ve hired and managed hundreds of people over my career. The technical skills may get you the interview, but it is the soft skills that get you the job.”

Schneider is not alone. Employers across many industries named soft skills such as dependability, collaboration, flexibility and problem-solving as the top skills they want in employees, according to a report from Monster .

These skills have become increasingly necessary in the field of IT, which has become a more integral part of strategic business planning and operations in recent years.

Are you considering a career in IT ? Explore some of the top soft skills IT professionals need to succeed in the workforce as well as discover what soft skills really are.

What Are Soft Skills in the IT World?

Soft skills are the non-technical human skills needed in every job across every industry. Communication, problem-solving, critical thinking, analysis, perseverance and creativity are all considered soft skills.

Technical skills like coding and programming  are critical to success in IT roles. But without strong soft skills, even highly skilled workers can struggle in today’s workforce, said Schneider.

“You can be the best coder in the world, but if you can’t get on (a) call or be in a meeting with a customer and work through an issue and not lose your temper or sound condescending, then you’re not going to do well on a team,” she said.

What is the Role of Communication in IT?

An infographic with the text soft skills used in IT include communication, collaboration, and problem-solving

While entry-level jobs may focus more on administrative tasks like managing passwords, supporting technological infrastructure or fixing computers, IT employees play a strategic role in business everywhere.

IT positions can be viewed as vital business partners and have been in higher organizational conversations. In order for IT roles to have those conversations, they need to have the soft skills to explain how technological solutions bring value to an organization.

Soft skills are critical to pursuing leadership roles in an IT department or company, said Daniel Hawkins , an adjunct IT instructor at SNHU. IT leaders often spend a lot more time collaborating with multiple departments and with other business leaders than sitting behind a computer.

“Moving away from the keyboard means that the IT professional starts having people work for them,” said Hawkins. “It also means working in teams, which is very collaborative. As the IT professional grows, that team collaboration evolves into leadership roles, which guides the teams to where they need to be.”

Learn how to become an IT manager .

What Soft Skills Are Needed in IT?

So, what soft skills do you need to work in today’s evolving IT environment? While communication in IT is one of the most commonly sought-after, the list of must-have soft skills is long.

Here are eight of the soft skills you'll use in an IT career.

1. Communication

When you work in IT, it’s not enough to simply understand and use your technical skills to solve problems or create opportunities for your company. You also need to be able to communicate those efforts to key stakeholders.

Depending on the project you’re working on or the role you play in the business, those stakeholders could be anyone from an end-user to a company leader.

You'll need to adapt your communication for a variety of different audiences. You can be an extremely skilled IT professional who does great work, but if you aren't able to communicate your ideas effectively to others, then your ideas may have diminished value.

2. Collaboration

When you work in IT, you may find yourself working in a team of other technology professionals. You might also have consistent contact with customers, other departments or even top executives.

Being able to work well with a variety of people from different professional experiences is key to success in this environment, said Schneider.

“It doesn’t matter where you work or if your job is customer-facing,” she said. “If you work in IT, you interface with everybody.”

3. Organization

IT professionals can end up managing many projects, tasks and problems all at once. Because of all of this multitasking, good organizational skills are valuable soft skills for IT workers.

Being organized can make you more efficient and productive at work and help you prioritize your daily tasks better, according to global tech association CompTIA .

4. Problem-solving

So much of the work done by IT departments is problem-solving. Whether you're integrating new code to fix a bug in software, creating a new cybersecurity program or responding to a hack, you'll have to utilize problem-solving skills to find innovative salutations to your issue.

These problem-solving skills are valuable and can tie in with other soft skills such as collaboration and communication, as you may have to work with others to receive their input, brainstorm and problem-solve together.

5. Analytical Thinking

Before you can successfully solve a problem, you need to analyze it from all angles and diagnose any technology issues. IT professionals with strong analytical skills can do this work more easily, even spotting potential problems before they arise.

"Being analytical gives you a major edge in IT, where you're expected to find logical solutions to problems frequently," according to CompTIA.

6. Creativity

IT may not be commonly considered an art, but solving IT problems often requires a lot of creativity, said Schneider. With a job in IT, you'll be challenged to come up with creative solutions, workarounds and fixes to keep business moving forward in the face of technical challenges.

“I can’t think of another field that uses creativity more,” Schneider said. “Without creativity, there is no innovation. And what is IT? It’s innovation.”

7. Perseverance

Just like creativity is required to solve IT problems, perseverance is another soft skill you’ll need to leverage often to be successful in this field. When you’re troubleshooting an IT issue, it’s not uncommon to have to rule out many potential causes before fixing a problem.

“The answer is almost never the first thing you tried,” said Schneider. “You have no choice but to persevere until you do have the answer.”

8. Resourcefulness

Resourcefulness is almost as important as communication in IT. You will need to be resourceful to solve new problems and learn new skills throughout your career.

IT professionals who know how to use available resources and seek out new ones are typically the most successful, according to CompTIA. Resourcefulness ensures that even if you don't know the answer to a problem, you do know how to find it.

How to Build Soft Skills in IT

Laurel Schneider with the text Laurel Schneider

Building soft skills starts during your IT degree program. While many IT degrees focus most of their coursework on building technical skills, some programs do put a lot of emphasis on soft skills development as well, said Schneider.

At SNHU, for example, an IT bachelor's degree program includes classes dedicated to communication in STEM professions, as well as courses related to project management, leadership and more.

Degree programs can also provide other natural opportunities for soft skills development. Assignments such as class discussions, group projects and peer review opportunities are all great ways to learn how to communicate complex ideas, work collaboratively and even disagree respectfully.

But while building soft skills during a degree program is important, Hawkins said, a lot of soft skill development happens on the job — and continues throughout your career.

“I believe that soft skills are actually something that you grow into as you work in the profession and learn more about yourself and how to communicate with others,” he said. “Soft skills get better with age and a lot of bumps along the way.”

How to Use Communication in IT to Get a Job

Because communication and other soft skills are in high demand in the IT field, they play an important role in helping you land your dream job.

Schneider said it starts by using soft skills to stand out during the application and interview process . Make sure that your resume is well-written  and that any written communication you have with company representatives is professional and clear. Then, prepare to discuss examples of your soft skills during the interview.

“The best way to demonstrate soft skills is to just be really prepared for the interview. That’s where you’re going to shine,” Schneider said. “Everybody in the waiting room has the technical skills. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t be sitting there. What will distinguish you from someone else is the soft skills.”

And if a long, successful career in IT is your goal, it’s also important to find a job that makes you happy and fulfilled, said Hawkins. Doing so can also give your soft skills a boost.

“Soft skills come about and improve with practice and making mistakes along the way,” Hawkins said. “It is far easier to develop soft skills when it is something that you like and are motivated by.”

Discover more about SNHU's IT degree online : Find out what courses you'll take, skills you'll learn and how to request information about the program.

Danielle Gagnon is a freelance writer focused on higher education. Connect with her on LinkedIn .

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About southern new hampshire university.

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SNHU is a nonprofit, accredited university with a mission to make high-quality education more accessible and affordable for everyone.

Founded in 1932, and online since 1995, we’ve helped countless students reach their goals with flexible, career-focused programs . Our 300-acre campus in Manchester, NH is home to over 3,000 students, and we serve over 135,000 students online. Visit our about SNHU  page to learn more about our mission, accreditations, leadership team, national recognitions and awards.


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